I came across an article from InformationWeek today that discusses the antiquated system (in their terms) of the BATFE’s gun trace system. Much of the data used for a gun trace requested by law enforcement must still come from manually looking it up on microfilm or microfiche.
You may remember that President Obama in his list of gun control proposals made tracing of firearms used in crimes part of his plan. It is number 12 on the list and mandates that all Federal law enforcement agencies submit a trace request for any firearm that they recovered at a crime scene. Obama issued a Presidential Memorandum on this on January 16th.
There are two obstacles to updating the system. The first is organizational and has to do with BATFE’s priorities.
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.”
The second obstacle is legal. The Firearm Owners Protection Act of 1986 forbids BATFE from creating a national database of gun registrations, sales, or owners. This is as it should be. If the BATFE does get around to upgrading the system, it must do so in a way that makes the data available faster but does not create the forbidden database. The article and the comments section do explore some alternatives.
I’m not an IT professional or a computer expert. However, when the BATFE does get around to upgrading their search system, we need to keep on top of it to make sure that they don’t surreptitiously develop a gun registry. This is where watching detailed budget requests becomes important. It will provide the clues needed to let us know in advance when BATFE plans to start their upgrade.