Tracing Gun Sales and Congressional Obstruction of Justice

[Transaction documents at the National Trace Center in Martinsburg W. VA.]. Daily Caller. (Associated Press. 2013, January 29).

While many of us are aware of the important role played by the Food and Drug Administration in our everyday lives, there is another federal agency that continually fights on our behalf; the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) works to ensure public safety in a variety of fields and industries. The most important category overseen by the bureau is the public health risk posed by firearms. Essential functions of the bureau include the tracing of guns used in crimes and identifying patterns in criminal access to guns. Unfortunately political friction is keeping the organization from doing its job.

20th century tools for a 21st century problem

The biggest obstacle opponents have placed on the ATF is the “consolidation and computerization” of records into a modern database. Congress also limits the agency’s budget and has blocked the appointment of a director.

ATF agents cannot use computers for their core tasks, like tracing gun sales. It’s an unintelligible application of policy.

Instead, federal agents are left with endless stacks of cardboard boxes that have been stuffed with unstandardized documentation related to the manufacturer, seller and purchaser of the gun in question. The amounts of which have literally become overwhelming, as the structural integrity of the floors at the National Trace Center has prompted storing records in several shipping containers.

This identification process has systematically blunted agents’ ability to do their job.

Increasingly restrictive policies like this have created an anachronistic skeleton. Congress has left the ATF to rot from the inside out. Regardless of the politics, the demand for traces continues to grow, upwards of 370,000 last year according to ATF reports.

In light of these facts, computerizing records is a vital first step to help law enforcement save lives.

Strategic congressional roadblocks

Yet another appropriations provision, called a rider, bars the ATF from a popular alternative among federal law enforcement — transferring responsibilities to other agencies.

Many believe that the Federal Bureau of Investigation is better positioned to handle tracing demands. This proposal has gained support from groups seeking to avoid an eternal battle.

Instead of continuing to press legislators to shift their perspectives on the ATF, the FBI alternative would provide a reputable institution with bipartisan support, funding and the ability to fight crime at varying levels.

This transfer of functions from the ATF to a different federal organization could have real benefits, however the move would complicate the political debate. Opponents of the transfer would have to tactfully restrict the FBI or another agency such as the Secret Service, without getting tangled in the organizations’ other responsibilities such as background checks.

The rider blocking this option is designed to keep the targeted functions within the ATF so that they can continue to feed the perpetual criticism and dismantling.

A second major reason the ATF hasn’t modernized is the tumultuous leadership position of the bureau. Until 2015, the ATF did not have a director for six years because of partisan congressional efforts. This was a result of intense lobbying by gun rights advocates to require senate approval of the appointment.

Evidently, the strategy has worked. Leaving the bureau without a formal leader has had the desired effect of silent decay. While there may have been opportunities for officials to look into alternatives for gun violence prevention, the lack of a coordinating voice weakens any progress.

The new approval requirement appears to be a capstone for gun rights advocates who believe the agency is already infringing on Second Amendment rights. These voices however, predominantly coordinated within groups including the National Rifle Association’s (NRA) Wayne LaPierre Jr., have omitted some important connections in these claims.

One in particular being that the policies they have endorsed perpetuate many of the structural inefficiencies found in the ATF.

[Document storage at the National Trace Center in Martinsburg W. VA.]. Science News. (M. Rosen. 2016, May 3).
Viable solutions moving forward

Ultimately, the debate over the current state of the ATF is a fight between those who favor institutional public safety and those who believe it is a waste of time and money. While it is difficult to know the exact benefits of freeing the bureau from highly politicized restrictions, we do know that it would provide more information to make better decisions in the context of public safety.

There will even be positive cumulative effects from these legislative liberties. Digitally stored and searchable documents would require less permanent storage, fewer dedicated personnel, and subsequently less funding for the maintenance of an updated trace system.

As opponents of the ATF and other efforts to consolidate and computerize gun-violence information have ignored, there is a successful model for a national database. The National Firearms Act (NFA) of 1941 effectively created a centralized record for certain firearms, like machine guns and short-barreled shotguns, nationwide.

Despite persistent concerns over gun rights, the following seven decades have not resulted in systematic infringements on the Second Amendment. The NFA worked, too. After the creation of the database, the number of crimes involving such guns fell sharply across the country.

We all benefit from a robust ATF

Political preferences aside, the least that can be done is to equip the ATF, charged with the domestic protection of our citizens, with the technological advancements of our millennium.

How else can we judge the agency’s capabilities if we don’t give them the support they need to do a good job?

The ATF is a necessary tool in the fight for public safety, keeping us safe from violent criminals and the guns they often use, yet they continue to face strong opposition from special interest groups and within Congress.

Whether we are police officers recovering guns from the scene of a crime, relatives of someone who has been shot, lawmakers making a stand for safer communities, or simply fellow concerned citizens, enabling quick traces of these weapons will help protect our communities.

The people of the United States deserve substantial progress on gun violence prevention and the ATF requires practical updates to deliver. Now it is a matter of our legislators understanding that fact as we fight for a safer future.