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To Perform Routine Gun Traces, ATF Now Needs Two Weeks

To help federal agents responsible for tracking down owners of guns used in crimes, coders and developers convert digital files into screenshots and similar paper records so they cannot be searched electronically. The National Tracing Center operated by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) has been tasked to trace firearms since 1972. In 1986 then-President Ronald Reagan signed a law prohibiting federal law enforcement from using “any system of registration” of firearms, firearm owners or firearm sales, reports NBC News. After the assassinations of Martin Luther King Jr. and Sen. Robert Kennedy, the Gun Control Act of 1968 required gun dealers to get a federal license to operate and write down names of people buying their weapons. The nearly 40-year-old regulations prevent ATF from keeping searchable, digitized gun transaction records. Efforts in Congress to modernize the system have failed. Last year Senate Democrats sponsored a bill that would allow the agency to keep a gun tracing database, but the bill went nowhere. Republicans argue that having an electronically searchable repository of guns poses more opportunities for the government to seize people's weapons. Eighteen GOP senators signed a resolution opposing Biden administration regulations that will require gun dealers to retain their entire history of transaction records.


It takes ATF 12 to 14 days to trace a gun used in a shooting, robbery or other crime. The delay is attributed to an increase in shootings, a decrease in ATF staff, and the fact that more police agencies are seeking assistance in tracking the owners of firearms used in crime. Recent mass shootings have renewed attention on the outdated system used for tracing guns by ATF, but the bipartisan gun legislation signed in June lacks measures to modernize the nation's only gun tracing facility. With access to 900 million scanned records, the ATF can't look up gun owners or shops by name, forcing investigators to scroll through hundreds of pages of screenshots to find gun information. Requests for traces now arrive at a faster rate, thanks to an online portal called eTrace which allows local law enforcement agencies to file trace requests with few keystrokes. Meanwhile, ATF investigators must scroll through hundreds of screenshots to find the information needed. While most traces take up to 14 days to complete, expedited searches are usually done for homicides and mass shootings.


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A daily report co-sponsored by Arizona State University, Criminal Justice Journalists, and the National Criminal Justice Association

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