Steve Ammidown And Steve Duckworth 2016-11-16 14:00:26
Let’s talk about guns. And records management. And maybe some advocacy. According to its website, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) is a law enforcement agency . . . That protects our communities from violent criminals, criminal organizations, the illegal use and trafficking of firearms, the illegal use and storage of explosives, acts of arson and bombings, acts of terrorism, and the illegal diversion of alcohol and tobacco products. [They] partner with communities, industries, law enforcement, and public safety agencies to safeguard the public [they] serve through information sharing, training, research, and use of technology. That’s a big job. But, as we’re about to see, “information sharing” and the “use of technology” are pretty restricted at ATF. Drowning in Records The National Tracing Center (NTC) is the firearms tracing facility of ATF. Located in Martinsburg, West Virginia, NTC is the only facility in the United States that can provide information to local, state, federal, and international law enforcement agencies for use in tracing firearms in criminal investigations, gun trafficking, and other movement of firearms. And NTC is drowning in records. According to a report in USA Today, roughly 1.6 million records arrive at the facility each month. Records usually come from defunct firearms dealers who are required to submit their records when they go out of business. (Dealers still in business are contacted by NTC after tracing a weapon through its manufacturer.) There appear to be no standards in place for how dealers have to keep or submit these records. There is a form (number 4473) for the actual gun purchase, but other records may be submitted electronically or via handwritten documents. They often arrive somewhat damaged; partially shredded or water-damaged records are frequently cited in news reports. Some people have even submitted records on rolls of toilet paper! As it is currently illegal to create a registry of firearms in the US, the idea of a searchable database is off the table. This leaves staff at NTC with the task of manually sifting through records to complete traces. Upwards of 365,000 traces are requested each year, and the number will keep growing, due in part to the Obama administration’s requirement that every gun involved in a crime be traced. While records are now being digitized to provide easier access and some relief of physical space, the records remain non-searchable and amount to a newer version of microfilmed records. Even these small digitization efforts are problematic. A recent Government Accountability Office report showed that this digital records system was in violation of the appropriations act restriction (see the Tiahrt Amendments on the next page) because, among other things, the records were kept on a single server, allowing potential access to too much data. Unled and Underfunded Some of the problems at NTC can be traced to a lack of consistent leadership and chronic underfunding. The position of the agency director was unfilled from 2006 to 2013 due to legislation backed by the National Rifle Association (NRA) that requires Senate confirmation to fill the position. In 2013, acting director B. Todd Jones was narrowly confirmed to fill the director role, but he retired soon after in 2015, and the position has yet to be filled permanently. Stagnant funding has prevented ATF from keeping up with the demand of processing records. In addition to overwhelmed staff, NTC has slightly more than 600 inspectors dedicated to monitoring the recordkeeping practices of more than 140,000 gun dealers across the country. The data collected by NTC is also subject to NRA’s legislative sway in Washington, DC. As mentioned, NRA has been successful in heading off attempts at creating a searchable database, arguing that such a registry would be in violation of the Second Amendment. In addition, a set of provisions known as the Tiahrt Amendments has been attached to every US Department of Justice appropriations bill since 2003, prohibiting NTC from releasing information to anyone other than a law enforcement agency or prosecutor in connection with a criminal investigation. The law effectively blocks this data from being used in academic research on criminal gun use or in civil lawsuits against gun sellers or manufacturers. It also prevents ATF from collecting inventory information from gun dealers, which would further help identify lost or stolen guns. The Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence argues that these amendments only empower criminals and reckless dealers. Restrictive laws and a lack of quality management lead to a massive backlog of records and a very limited system for filing the great number of trace requests that NTC receives. The antiquated measures required by NTC restrict law enforcement’s ability to perform its duties. While public opinion regarding gun sales seems to be turning (unlike Congress’s voting record), the implementation of a database seems quite far off. An effective and permanent director at ATF would be a good starting place, but as of this writing, a nomination isn’t even in place (and given the current political climate, it’s not likely to happen anytime soon). Here’s Where Archivists Come In Not unlike the rest of the conversation around gun control, the political debate around NTC and gun tracing data seems intractable and unlikely to change. However, as archivists and records managers, we offer a unique perspective when we contact our elected officials on the accessibility of gun tracing data. We’ve been in the dusty stacks (yes, we said it) and dealt with unwieldy access systems when time was of the essence. We should be arguing for the modernization and full funding of NTC and for the repeal of the Tiahrt Amendments, at the very least to improve access to government information and at the very most to help save lives from gun violence. So consider this your call to advocacy! If you feel this situation warrants action, take it and contact your legislators now! This article originally appeared on the Issues & Advocacy blog, Archivists on the Issues. Find links to sources and more information at http://tinyurl.com/firearms-tracing.
Published by Society of American Archivists. View All Articles.