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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.