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Let the ATF tracing center do its job

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Monday, July 9, 2018

Bloomberg Opinion

When law-enforcement agents seek information on guns found at crime scenes, they call the firearms tracing center of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives. Agents at the tracing center, in West Virginia, then try to establish a chain of custody based on the gun's serial number, manufacturer, distributor and retailer.

The agents pursue this task in the most inefficient, wasteful and time-consuming manner imaginable, manually searching records - about 800 million of them — because federal law purportedly prevents the center from organizing them into a searchable digital database.

This absurd prohibition needs to be lifted.

The law, the 1986 Firearms Owners' Protection Act, resulted from a marriage of ideological rigidity and political cowardice. It expressly prohibits "any system of registration of firearms, firearms owners, or firearms transactions or dispositions."

Of course, if a gun sale is legal, and it's made by a federally licensed dealer, then all that information exists. The National Rifle Association doesn't want officers of the law to be able to access it efficiently.

The reasoning is familiar. The NRA maintains that the nation's popularly elected government is forever scheming to confiscate all guns. The claim is and always was preposterous - but if enough politicians agree to do your bidding, that doesn't seem to matter.

In introducing legislation to improve a government agency hobbled by design, Democratic Senator Patrick Leahy, a gun owner from Vermont, said, "We cannot let a baseless conspiracy theory drive our public-safety policies."

The Crime Gun Tracing Modernization Act, cosponsored by Florida Senator Bill Nelson, would require the tracing center and federally licensed firearm retailers to digitize records currently stored on paper and to compile a searchable database. In a bow to the paranoia fanned by the gun lobby, the database would not be searchable by name of gun owner.

The tracing center, with some 8,000 trace requests underway at any given moment, has resorted to filling trailers with its overflow of documents. The wasted effort and tax dollars, and the resulting delays in criminal investigations, are a national disgrace. Law-enforcement organizations support the tracing modernization act. Every responsible member of Congress should do the same.

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