Federal Gun Control Requires IT Overhaul

White House plan will work only if the IT systems and databases used for background checks and gun tracing get the improvements needed to support stepped-up oversight.

John Foley, Editor, InformationWeek

January 30, 2013

3 Min Read

At the ATF, the technology used to trace weapons recovered during a criminal investigation is a generation (or two or three) removed from today's state-of-the-art systems. When a trace request comes into ATF from law enforcement officers involved in an investigation, the agency uses microfiche -- that's right, the film-based records you remember from the library -- to retrieve the information needed to respond to the query. It's an archaic, labor-intensive process, made necessary by the fact that ATF is prohibited by law from maintaining a central database of information on firearms owners and transactions.

In fact, the ATF maintains many other kinds of records. They include the transactions of out-of-business gun dealers, and reports on multiple handgun sales made to the same person within five business days. And the ATF's National Tracing Center in Martinsburg, W.Va., manages a database of information on guns recovered during crime investigations that can be accessed using a service called eTrace. This lets law enforcement agencies submit firearms trace requests, monitor their progress, retrieve results and query "trace-related data."

But ATF's Firearms Tracing System, just like the FBI databases, has holes. On the same day that Obama introduced those gun-control executive orders, he issued a memo ordering federal agencies to trace every firearm taken into custody. "The effectiveness of firearms tracing depends on the quantity and quality of information and trace requests submitted to ATF," Obama wrote. A second memo instructs federal agencies to do a better job of contributing records to the FBI's NICS system.

Such policy mandates are toothless without the requisite IT infrastructure, and the ATF acknowledges it's got work to do. The agency's published strategic plan outlines a series of needed improvements, including implementation of a standard technical architecture and real-time knowledge management capabilities.

Given the vital role that backend IT systems play in gun control, and the fact that Obama has pinpointed the need to improve information quantity and quality, we might expect the FBI and the ATF to quickly address the issues that have been identified. So far, however, the agencies have been mum about any new plans to plug the gaps. The FBI, in response to a query from InformationWeek Government, offered only this: "With regard to the proposed executive order, the NICS section will strive to accommodate upcoming changes and mandates." An ATF spokesman, meanwhile, said he wasn't aware of any actions planned in the wake of the White House's recent gun-control steps.

The FBI and ATF must do better. Concrete plans are needed now to improve data collection and sharing. Federal CIO Steven VanRoekel, who has demonstrated an aptitude for such things, should help clean up this mess. VanRoekel's Digital Government Strategy, introduced in May, defines an IT architecture and processes for sharing digitized content securely, using Web APIs and with attention to protecting privacy. The FBI and ATF should study it closely.

I reached out to VanRoekel to inquire about all of this, but the federal CIO's office bounced my query to the FBI and the ATF. ATF CIO Rick Holgate didn't respond to my email, either.

Unfortunately, on top of the data quality issues identified by the White House, and the FBI's and ATF's outdated IT systems, there's a lack of transparency about the systems used to enforce federal gun-control laws. That also must change. The White House's new initiative simply won't work without across-the-board improvements in all of these areas.

Mobile applications are the new way to extend government information and services to on-the-go citizens and employees. Also in the new, all-digital Anytime, Anywhere issue of InformationWeek Government: A new initiative aims to shift the 17-member Intelligence Community from agency-specific IT silos to an enterprise environment of shared systems and services. (Free registration required.)

About the Author(s)

John Foley

Editor, InformationWeek

John Foley is director, strategic communications, for Oracle Corp. and a former editor of InformationWeek Government.

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