Government // Leadership
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3/13/2013
12:12 PM
John Foley
John Foley
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ATF's Gun Tracing System Is A Dud

The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives is using 1960s era technology to manage a 21st century problem. When will this get fixed?

A key piece of the White House's gun control plan -- the process by which the feds use serial numbers and descriptions to trace the original source of a gun sale -- is at risk of failure. The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives is using 1960s era technology to manage a 21st century problem. And nothing is being done to fix it.

ATF's Firearms Tracing System lets local, state and federal law enforcement officials determine the "chain of custody" of confiscated weapons. But the ATF's "system" is a national embarrassment. It's mostly a manual process based on the use of microfilm/microfiche, the same technology that libraries used 50 years ago to archive newspapers and magazines.

Here's how the Firearms Tracing System works: When a trace request comes in to ATF's National Tracing Center, often by telephone, employees trek to the microfilm department, where 500 million records are stored. They retrieve microfilm cases from a shelf, search the records using a special reader that magnifies the itsy-bitsy images, and report their findings to the law enforcement agency that put in the request. Urgent requests are turned around within 24 hours, but that's the exception. The process generally takes five days.

That's not nearly good enough. If you've ever used a smartphone to create a digital image of a check for deposit, you're a few tech generations -- and about four days, 23 hours and 55 minutes -- ahead of the Firearms Tracing System.

As the Obama administration, in the wake of the Newtown tragedy, pushes for gun control -- "gun safety" is the term the White House favors -- the Firearms Tracing System is drawing attention. Critics refer to the system as "horse and buggy" technology, according to a recent piece by CBS news. Attorney General Eric Holder paid a visit to the National Tracing Center in Martinsburg, W.Va., to have a look for himself. (ATF is part of the Department of Justice.) There's only one conclusion Holder could reach: The Firearms Tracking System needs updating.

ATF CIO Rick Holgate, an experienced technology executive with degrees from Princeton and MIT, is the first to agree. In an hour-long interview with InformationWeek Government at the agency's Washington, D.C., headquarters, Holgate described the microfilm system as a "target of opportunity."

He would like to replace the microfilm with a modern imaging system capable of processing gun records much faster and more efficiently. A new system would cost about $4 million, Holgate estimates -- not cheap, but a small price to pay to expedite this important process. The ATF's tech budget is about $80 million, minus $10 million to $15 million if sequestration takes full effect.

But as important as it is, upgrading the Firearms Tracing Systems hasn't risen to the top of the ATF's priority list. Holgate has his hands full with a long list of other projects: moving the agency's email system to the cloud, making aggregate gun-trace data available in an open format, modernizing and integrating the agency's other legacy systems and, most recently, moving its email archive online to facilitate e-discovery. "It's not that [replacing] microfiche isn't important," Holgate says. "It just has to compete with other priorities."

If you're wondering why the ATF doesn't replace its kludge of a system with a state-of-the-art database management system that could locate documents in minutes instead of days, it's because there are laws against it. The agency is restricted by the Firearms Owners Protection Act from creating a national database of gun registrations, sales or owners. The influential National Rifle Association gets fidgety at the mere mention of a centralized firearms database. So ATF must concentrate on accessing, integrating and managing the records that are available under current law.

While microfilm is at the core of the Firearms Tracing System, there's actually more to it. The system pulls together information from a variety of sources, mostly Oracle databases. The agency is upgrading those systems on top of Oracle's Web services-based Fusion architecture "to allow us to extend it more readily," Holgate says. A Web front end called eTrace lets law enforcement officials submit requests for gun traces and get the results back.

But there's no escaping the grunt work involved on the back end of gun tracing. Out-of-business gun dealers are one source of records for the Firearms Tracing System. As required by law, however, those records arrive as paper documents, which are then converted by the ATF to electronic images. The various imaging systems ATF uses were "purpose built," Holgate says, a nice way of saying that those too are a hodge-podge. ATF and DOJ are moving in parallel toward a common, enterprise approach to imaging, he says.

Other ATF platforms with a gun control element are in need of attention. ATF operates a referral system that links to the FBI's National Instant Criminal Background Check System, aka NICS. When a would-be gun buyer completes an application (ATF Form 4473) at the point of purchase, the FBI has three days to complete a background check or, by law, that transaction is allowed to go through.

If disqualifying information is discovered after the three-day approval deadline, it becomes a "delayed denial," in which case ATF agents have the sensitive job of repossessing the firearm. Those potentially dangerous situations could be minimized if the FBI and ATF were better at information sharing. At the time of our interview, Holgate was due to meet with the FBI within a few days to discuss next steps. One idea is to include a subset of Form 4473 data in the FBI NICS to establish more data consistency and introduce fewer errors.

Accurate, timely data sharing between ATF and the FBI becomes especially important as the number of background checks rises, as it's sure to under the White House initiative. The FBI already conducts more than 45,000 gun-related background checks a day. (For more, see "Federal Gun Control Requires IT Overhaul.")

Did I mention that the number of gun traces, now about 350,000 annually, is going to increase, as well? In mid-January, when Obama introduced 23 executive orders on gun safety, he also issued a memo requiring federal law enforcement organizations to submit trace requests for all guns recovered during the course of a criminal investigation. It's a good bet that heightened awareness in communities nationwide will cause more local and state police to request gun traces too.

In other words, there will be even more trips to the ATF's microfilm department, more eye-straining records searches, more lengthy turnarounds to answer a simple question about a gun's origins. Holgate says he hopes to find the resources to upgrade the Firearms Tracing System "in the next year or so."

That's not soon enough. Obama himself should be paying attention.

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ANewNickname
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ANewNickname,
User Rank: Apprentice
3/14/2013 | 11:10:14 PM
re: ATF's Gun Tracing System Is A Dud
The reason "The influential National Rifle Association gets fidgety at the mere mention of a centralized firearms database" is (justified, IMHO) fear that a central registry would facilitate widespread gun confiscation. I'm not an expert, but I see no reason such a database couldn't be constructed to allow rapid tracing of an individual firearm's history while maintaining anonymity of the owner(s) via an encryption scheme that would allow decoding of ownership information only via a court-ordered search warrant. That would ease (although not completely eliminate) most such fears.
John Foley
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John Foley,
User Rank: Apprentice
3/14/2013 | 6:39:33 PM
re: ATF's Gun Tracing System Is A Dud
ATF's gun tracing capabilities are a function of several factors -- policy, process, technology, funding, willingness to participate. I'm not suggesting that ATF operate outside the law or that the law be changed. Rather, my point is that newer technologies are available that could be used to deliver better/faster results within the law. Technology shouldn't be the point of failure in this important initiative, regardless of where you stand on the policy question.
NJ Mike
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NJ Mike,
User Rank: Apprentice
3/14/2013 | 5:58:27 PM
re: ATF's Gun Tracing System Is A Dud
"If you're wondering why the ATF doesn't replace its kludge of a system with a state-of-the-art database management system that could locate documents in minutes instead of days, it's because there are laws against it. The agency is restricted by the Firearms Owners Protection Act from creating a national database of gun registrations, sales or owners." - Basically you're saying the reason the ATF isn't creating this modern data base is because it is against the law. If it is against the law, they SHOULDN'T be creating one. If you don't like it, try and change the law.
Jeffs1110
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Jeffs1110,
User Rank: Apprentice
3/14/2013 | 5:03:12 PM
re: ATF's Gun Tracing System Is A Dud
This is part of the equation. Two factors are not mentioned. First, there's legislation prohibiting creating a national firearms registry, so being able to retrieve this data quickly without creating a de facto registry will be a challenge. Second, The only records available at the ATF are from retired or out of business Federal Firearms Licensee (FFL) records. If the firearm was purchase or transferred through an active FFL the request has to go to that FFL and retrieved from the FFL's paper or computerized records.
MyW0r1d
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MyW0r1d,
User Rank: Strategist
3/14/2013 | 3:45:19 PM
re: ATF's Gun Tracing System Is A Dud
The joy is each one of us can look at a list of projects and assign differing priorities according to our experience. I might say for instance, how can archiving email in a currently functional email system or moving it to the cloud trump antiquated gun control given the ever increasing cases. Another challenge is exemplified in states like Kansas which is proposing legislation to shield it from federal gun control legislation it deems illegal. One clause for example eliminates weapons produced and maintained in Kansas from entering the federal tracing system. Do we seriously believe some of those weapons would not make their way to Missouri, Oklahoma, Nebraska or Aurora Colorado?
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