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John Foley
John Foley
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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.

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President Obama's national gun-control initiative hinges on federal agencies' ability to collect, manage and share information on would-be gun buyers and on weapons tied to crimes. But the technology needed to do that work is in desperate need of fixing.

Obama introduced 23 executive orders on Jan. 16 aimed at reducing gun violence through a combination of tougher regulation and enforcement, research, training, education and attention to mental healthcare. Several of the proposed actions involve better information sharing, including requiring federal agencies to make relevant data available to the FBI's background check system and easing legal barriers that prevent states from contributing data to that system.

But the White House plan will work only if the IT systems and databases tied to gun control -- managed by the FBI and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives (ATF) -- get the overhauls needed to support stepped-up oversight. A handful of IT systems are involved. At the FBI, there's the National Instant Criminal Background Check System (NICS), an auxiliary system called the NICS Index, plus the Interstate Identification Index and the National Crime Information Center. At the ATF, it's the Firearms Tracing System.

[ The government faces IT challenges on every level. Read Optimization Is Key To Federal Data Center Overhaul. ]

The NICS, Uncle Sam's central database for background checks, processed 16.5 million firearms background checks in 2011, but the process for handling those transactions isn't as automated as you might think. Only 6% of the background checks coming into the FBI were submitted electronically via the system's E-Check functionality. The rest come in by phone to an NICS call center, where 91.5% of background checks result in a thumbs up or thumbs down and the rest require follow-up.

The last time an FBI official publicly discussed NICS was November 2011, when David Cuthbertson, assistant director of the bureau's Criminal Justice Information Services Division, testified before a Senate subcommittee on efforts to improve the information available in the system. Timely, comprehensive data is needed because the FBI has only three business days to find relevant information that might be missing from its databases. After that, the gun purchase is allowed to proceed.

In some cases, the FBI fails to uncover records that would block gun shoppers from buying weapons because of disqualifying criteria such as a felony conviction or being in the country illegally. "When that happens, firearms can and do end up in the hands of persons who are not allowed to possess them," Cuthbertson said.

The problem isn't that the records don't exist; it's that the FBI doesn't have them in its systems. The shooter at Virginia Tech in 2007, for example, was allowed to acquire firearms despite a disqualifying mental health history because the records that should have flagged his condition weren't in the NICS Index. That critical shortcoming led in 2008 to the NICS Improvement Amendments Act, intended to create a more complete database. Over the next three years, the number of records in the NICS Index increased 41%, to 7.2 million, and the number of mental health records jumped 153%, to 1.3 million. The FBI also added 766,000 criminal dispositions and increased use of electronic records filing into NICS.

But additional steps must be taken to establish a more accurate and efficient background-check system. Cuthbertson testified that the NICS suffered from outdated IT systems, a shortage of manpower needed to manage and maintain information coming into the system, and legal and policy barriers related to the sharing of mental health information.

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.)

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