Why is the ATF required to trace guns with outdated technology? When police need to trace the ownership of a gun that may have been used in a crime, they need to either call the ATF via telephone or send an email, and then search through microfiche reels which hold close to a century of records of receipts of gun sales.

In our June 19th, 2016 issue, I’d written an article about mass shootings and gun violence in the U.S.  In my June 19th, 2016 article, I’d stated that in my opinion, if we want to see a reduction in gun violence in this country, our Federal government, our state government, our city and county governments, our media and our schools will have to be addressing three issues: I’d stated that lenient gun control laws are a part of the problem, and I’d stated that quite a few aspects of our mental healthcare system which needs to be modernized.

I’d also stated that it’s time to have very some serious conversations about what levels of violence we’re willing to consider acceptable and we’re willing to tolerate within our society, and I stated that these conversations need to begin with teachers throughout the U.S. talking with the youngest elementary school students about this.  I’d stated that if our government is only willing to address one or two of those issues that I’ve just mentioned, and not address all three of them, then we can expect to continue to see more incidents of gun violence, more domestic violence, more gang violence, more street crime, more gun violence from organized crime and more mass shootings.

None of those issues are simple.  That’s why we still have so many people being killed by guns in this country every year.  If these issues were simple, this would have been solved half a century ago.There is however, one aspect of gun control legislation which would be impressively simple to modernize

Archiving Records And Data- As Of 1936

The Federal law which requires that all store owners who have valid active Federal firearms are required to send duplicate copies of all receipts to the Federal Bureau Of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, And Explosives is mandatory in all states, and the terms of that law do not vary between states.

While every other Federal, state, county and city government agency throughout the U.S. is permitted to maintain computerized databases, the branch of the ATF which oversees the receipts from firearms sales is still prohibited from computerizing their records. Congress still requires the branch of the ATF which keeps the receipts from all gun sales throughout the United States Of America to scan the copies of the receipts that they receive from all stores which sell guns to mircrofiche reels.

Yes, you did read that correctly here; a technology which was the most advanced form of data recording that the world had ever seen back in 1936 is still presently in use by our Federal Bureau Of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms And Explosives today in the autumn of 2016.

When police need to trace the ownership of a gun that may have been used in a crime, they need to either call the ATF via telephone or send an email, and then the ATF agents search through microfiche reels which hold close to a century of records of receipts of gun sales.

A Brief History Of Microfiche Reels

During the latter half of the 1930’s, archivists began to use microfiche reels as a means of archiving back issues of newspapers, magazines, and journals.  In the late 1930’s, this was the most advanced technology for archiving data in the world.

When I was an elementary school student in the 1970’s, microfiche was still the current technology for searching through old issues of newspapers, magazines, and journals.

By the 1980’s when I was a junior high school student and a high school student, most publishers throughout the U.S. were still using microfiche reels to archive their back issues, but all librarians throughout the country were saying that the technology would likely soon become obsolete, and publishing companies would likely soon be archiving back issues of all publications in computerized databases. Which is precisely what happens to begin in the early 1990s.

Computerized databases superseded the microfiche technologies for quite a few reasons.  Computerized databases are notably faster to search through, they are easier to print from, and anyone who requests a password can search through them 24 hours per day, 365 days per year from any computer, a tablet or a cell phone from anywhere in the world.

Back issues of newspapers, magazines and journals which predate the early 1990’s, as well as other archival materials, are still kept on microfiche reels simply because fewer people are searching for older articles on a daily basis, though in recent years, publishing companies and archivists have begun to start the process of computerizing their older records.

But not the ATF.  A computerized database would be a searchable database, and Congress simply will not allow them to set up a searchable computerized database.

Criminals Are Using The Most Advanced Available Technologies- So Why Can’t Law Enforcement?

It’s no secret that for many decades, the National Rifle Association has been one of the most influential lobbying groups in American history; they offer a lot of endorsements and campaign contributions, and they are the motivating force behind the restriction which prohibits the ATF from computerizing their records of receipts of gun sales.  The reasoning that we keep hearing from the conservative members of Congress is that a computerized searchable database would infringe upon Second Amendment rights.

Because the ATF cannot computerize their records of receipts, when members of any city police, county police, state police, the FBI or the DEA want to trace the records of ownership of any gun that they suspect may have been used in a crime based on the serial number, they call or send an email to the ATF offices in Martinsburg, West Virginia, and then the ATF agents have to find their copy of the sales receipt in their boxes of records of microfiche reels.  Their system is in fact very well organized, they can usually find the receipt for the purchase and sale of any gun in the country based on the serial number within 24 hours.  And it takes a lot less than that for any criminal who knows that they’ve committed a serious violent crime to leave the country.

I don’t know all of the reasons that the NRA and other gun owners’ groups fear a searchable computerized database.  They state that if the ATF were to establish a searchable computerized database of records of gun sales, that would be a violation of Second Amendment rights.  However somehow, the ATF maintaining those same records using such an archaic and obsolete technology does seem to be acceptable within their interpretation of the Second Amendment.

There are quite a few very legitimate reasons that people want to own guns

People use them to hunt birds and game animals, people use them for target shooting, and people who live in areas in which they need to protect themselves from potentially dangerous wildlife species need to carry guns for very obvious reasons.  In some states, people who are afraid of becoming victims of street crime are permitted to apply for concealed weapons permits, and people like to keep them at home to protect themselves from home invasion.  Some people like to collect them simply as collectibles which they feel are likely to increase in value in future decades.  Those are all very legitimate reasons to own guns, no one in the Federal government or in any other state or local government agency anywhere in the U.S. doubts that these are all very legitimate reasons to want to purchase, maintain and own guns.

For people who wish to own guns for any of those reasons, allowing the ATF to set up a computerized database which law enforcement can access would actually work to their benefit.  If someone steals a gun, then a computerized database would be a means that law enforcement could trace stolen guns and return them back to their legal owners.  If someone loans a gun to someone and the person who borrows it commits a crime without the knowledge of the owner, then this would also be a means for the legal owner to prove that he or she had nothing to do with the crime in question- all they’d need to do is to establish their whereabouts at the time that the crime had been committed.  Unless you’re actually intending to use a gun to commit a crime, then you have absolutely nothing whatsoever to worry about if Congress ever finally does decide to allow the ATF to use 21st-century servers and computers to keep track of their records of receipts from gun sales.

Although the technology does probably exist for government agencies or law enforcement agencies to monitor the location of firearms at all times by installing devices such as microchips which can be tracked via GPS into guns, and it would also probably be technologically possible to install some sort of disabling switch from which a law enforcement agency could render a gun unable to fire via a remote “kill switch” (comparable perhaps to the “kill switches” that police agencies use in sting operations which are intended to catch auto thieves by setting up “bait cars”), no such plans have ever been proposed or would ever be approved.  No government agencies are proposing or discussing any plans that would involve confiscating weapons from any people who have purchased them legally and use them entirely for legal purposes.  That would be infringing upon Second Amendment rights.

The Floors Would Collapse

The ATF stores many thousands of boxes which hold their microfiche reels in industrial shipping containers which they have to keep in a secured section of the property outdoors simply because the managers of the building that their offices are located in has told them that the floor beams of that building are not structurally strong enough to support the weight of all of the boxes of microfiche reels.  The property managers of that office building have advised the ATF agents that if they were to try to move their records to the inside of the office building, the floors would collapse.  I know of no other government agency of any government in any country anywhere in the world whose staff has to keep their records in an outdoor facility because if they were to attempt to bring their records indoors, the floors of their office building would cave in.

This is the second decade of the 21st century now.  All of their records of receipts could easily be uploaded into a single encrypted server, and if the ATF were permitted to hire a team of data entry technicians, it probably would not take terribly long to convert their thousands of boxes of microfiche reels into a modern digitized database.  And then police agencies throughout the country, as well as the FBI and the DEA, really would be able to trace the sales and ownership history of a gun based on the serial number as quickly as they can trace the ownership history of an automobile, truck or motorcycle based on a license plate, and as quickly as they can trace ownership of boats, helicopters and airplanes based on their registration numbers- which is a process which usually takes no more than 5 minutes- just like we see in crime drama television shows and in detective movies.

More Critical Now Than Ever: If Not Now, When?

I want to point out here that Congress finally giving permission to the ATF to computerize their records of receipts of gun sales not solve all of the issues relating to guns that are used in crimes would not solve all of the issues relating to law enforcement agencies who are working to investigate crimes.  This would only be of use in crimes in which guns that had originally been legally purchased were used.

Whenever factories close in the U.S., salvage companies and companies that recycle scrap metals sell the industrial equipment from factories which have closed.  This has resulted in industrial grade smelters becoming readily available at relatively affordable prices to anyone who has a computer and looks through online auction websites.

Anyone can now purchase an industrial grade smelter, and anyone who learns how to operate a smelter can make templates or from molds from a gun, and they can use those templates and form molds to produce counterfeit guns.  Counterfeit guns will quite obviously either have fake serial numbers or they will have no serial numbers at all, thus rendering them difficult for law enforcement to trace.  Counterfeit guns can only be traced through rifling impression patterns.  It has been publicized that there are a number of criminal gangs who operate in various countries throughout the world who use this technique to produce counterfeit “ghost guns,” many of which end up being smuggled into the U.S.

And of course, people purchase real guns legally in other countries and then they smuggle them into this country- this has been going on since the 18th century, there’s no reason that this will stop anytime soon either.

There are also quite a few ways that someone can manufacture a homemade “zip gun,” which is any homemade device that resembles a gun which can fire projectiles at a target.  There are numerous videos available on youtube which show techniques for making homemade improvised guns, and people not only make them but buy, trade and sell them on the black market every single day of the year.  We’re also now seeing advancements in technologies in 3-dimensional printers, from which people can now assemble homemade guns using 3D printers.  Presently, the software which would enable people to make guns using 3D printers is illegal, but presumably skilled hackers could acquire the programs, and then they can sell the programs to people who want to make homemade guns using 3D printers.

This means that police agency will be investigating quite a few crimes in which counterfeit or homemade guns will be used.  Allowing police detectives to look up the ownership history of guns which had originally been purchased legally would at least enable detectives to solve crimes in which guns which had originally been purchased legally have been used much faster- thus giving law enforcement agencies the same advantage that criminals already have- they’d finally be utilizing 21st century technologies.

Scott Benowitz is a staff writer for Afterimage Review. He holds an MSc in Comparative Politics from The London School of Economics & Political Science and a B.A. in International Studies from Reed...

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