Editorial Board

Why the Feds Can't Trace Guns

Why would Congress want a federal agency to be inefficient?

So many boxes, so little time.

Photographer: Ricky Carioti/The Washington Post via Getty Images

Some government agencies start out inefficient. Others become inefficient over time. And a precious few have inefficiency thrust upon them.

That last is a fair description of what has happened to the national firearms tracing center, which is operated by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives. The center's work is vital, yet Congress prevents it from doing it well.

Its chief, Charles Houser, is a Six Sigma kind of guy, endlessly seeking better ways for his agency to trace guns used in crimes. ("Extra keystrokes matter," he says.) The agency is on track to perform about 360,000 traces this year while cataloging more than 1 million transaction records from federally licensed gun dealers.

To trace a gun, the agency follows a trail from manufacturer to dealer and, when possible, to purchaser. And it does so in the most antiquated fashion imaginable.

Gun sellers' records at the national tracing center.

Photographer: Francis Wilkinson

Consequently, ATF clerks and agents spend hours each workday rifling through paper. A requirement that gun-dealer records be submitted digitally -- hardly a gross imposition in the year 2014 -- and the creation of a searchable digital database would vastly speed both the cataloging and tracing processes. That, in turn, would enable the ATF to reassign personnel from fighting the avalanche of paper to fighting actual crime.

These kinds of rudimentary efficiencies are forbidden at the firearms tracing center. The Firearms Owners' Protection Act, passed in 1986, prohibits "any system of registration of firearms, firearms owners, or firearms transactions or dispositions." In other words: The tracing center can gather some data, but it can't organize it efficiently.

Anyone with a passing acquaintance with gun politics can surely guess why: The prospect of routine efficiency alarms the extreme gun-rights movement. Because generous doses of paranoia advance the cause and rally believers, the gun-rights movement has invested great energy in the notion that government record-keeping is a threat to freedom. (Movement rhetoric is a perfect illustration of Godwin's law.)

The movement's fear is ostensibly based on the notion that the federal government is ready and eager to begin house-to-house searches to confiscate the citizenry's estimated 300 million guns. It's possible this fear is overblown; Congress won't even let the government conduct background checks on all gun buyers, much less authorize home visits.

The fear is also at odds with U.S. history. In the Revolutionary War era, militia members were sometimes required to bring their guns to musters, where they were duly registered. New Hampshire and Rhode Island conducted door-to-door surveys of gun ownership.

Of course, the Founders only had to create a nation. They didn't have to grapple with the addled obsessions of the National Rifle Association or the sheepishness of its supporters in Congress.

    --Editors: Francis Wilkinson, Michael Newman.

    To contact the senior editor responsible for Bloomberg View’s editorials: David Shipley at davidshipley@bloomberg.net .

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