By: Peter Suciu
One of the lesser reported aspects of the recent surge in gun sales that have reached record levels is the paperwork that it generated. Each firearms-related background check, even if not for an actual sale, has an accompanying record. Currently, more than 900 million records are maintained by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) – and increasingly those records are being digitized.
Republican Congressman Michael Cloud of Texas has been among the lawmakers who have expressed concern on how the ATF could use those records.
According to a recent report from The Texan, ATF built up its storehouse of information over the past 15 years through “Out of Business Records” (OBR), which included guns records that federal firearms licensees (FFLs) are required to transfer to the agency when they go out of business. Of the 920,664,765 records obtained, approximately 866 million are now stored in digitized format.
“The sole purpose of these systems is to trace firearms used in crimes, which is a valuable crime gun intelligence tool used in thousands of investigations by ATF and our local, State, and Federal law enforcement partners,” the ATF told Cloud in response to a letter he wrote to the agency, which questioned how the information on gun transfers was being used.
The ATF continued:
“The vast majority of the criminal firearms traces completed by the ATF National Tracing Center (NTC) are done for state and local law enforcement agencies across the country pursuant to active law enforcement investigations. The NTC only traces crime guns, and every trace must be identified as such by the requestor by selecting an appropriate crime code when submitting the trace request. The NTC has no ability to determine the successful prosecution of hundreds of thousands of crime gun traces it completes annually, nor does it have any way to link a trace for a specific prosecution for a particular year. The table below shows the number of times per year that OBR are used to complete crime gun traces.”
A Gun Registry Database in the Works
Despite the ATF’s explanation on the purpose of digitizing the records, Cloud has warned that the ATF’s efforts are essentially a gun registry database, which has been prohibited by Congress.
“[T]he Biden Administration is again circumventing Congress and enabling the notably corrupt ATF to manage a database of nearly a billion gun transfer records,” Cloud wrote. “The Biden Administration continues to empower criminals and foreign nationals while threatening the rights of law-abiding Americans. It’s shameful and this Administration should reconsider its continued attacks on American gun owners.”
According to The Texan, the number of gun records held in the ATF’s database could grow even larger in the near future, as the agency is pursuing a rule change that would require FFLs to maintain the records that are ultimately transferred to the agency indefinitely, rather than the current 20-year minimum.
“Texans fervently understand their Constitutional right to keep and bear arms,” Cloud told The Texan via a statement. “If the Biden Administration is successful in their proposed rule change, every gun record from the past 20 years and onward would be stored in a federal database managed by the ATF. This would absolutely violate federal law and would put Texans and the rest of the nation on the path of potential gun confiscation.”
Biden’s Calls for a Registry
Supporters of gun control have long called for a national gun registry. The Giffords Law Center noted, “Firearm registration systems are a useful method of curbing illegal gun activity and encouraging responsible gun practices,” and added, “Laws requiring gun owners to register their firearms ensure gun owner accountability and help law enforcement solve crimes and disarm criminals. Despite the clear advantages inherent in registration laws, few states have such laws on the books—and some prohibit them outright.”
There may be no national database, but several states do have specific laws on the books. New York currently requires that all handguns must be registered, while Hawaii and Washington, D.C. require that all firearms be registered. New residents to California and Maryland must also report to law enforcement the firearms they own, while “pre-ban” assault rifles must be registered in California, Connecticut, Hawaii, Maryland, New Jersey, and New York.
President Joe Biden even campaigned on calls for additional registrations. The Biden-Harris campaign website suggested that a registration could address gun violence. It even called to “regulate possession of existing assault weapons under the National Firearms Act. Currently, the National Firearms Act requires individuals possessing machine-guns, silencers, and short-barreled rifles to undergo a background check and register those weapons with the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF). Due to these requirements, such weapons are rarely used in crimes. As president, Biden will pursue legislation to regulate possession of existing assault weapons under the National Firearms Act.”
Second Amendment and Beyond
Supporters of the Second Amendment warn that registration could lead to civilian disarmament. It could be begin with licensing, followed by bans and forced buy-backs or even confiscation of firearms.
Any national gun registry, however, isn’t just a Second Amendment issue, as noted by Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC), which was established in 1994 as a public interest research center focused on privacy and civil liberties. It considered both sides of the debate for a national gun database: “Some gun-control lobbyists argue that if records of gun owners were made available, then this increased regulation of weapons would decrease potentially violent crimes. Taking the opposite view, other advocates believe it is their legal right to own and use a firearm, and that anonymity is critically linked [sic] this ownership. They assert that the disclosure of gun ownership records could provide a potential road map for criminals in search of firearms, as well as potential for neighborhood gossip.”
Peter Suciu is a Michigan-based writer who has contributed to more than four dozen magazines, newspapers and websites. He regularly writes about military small arms, and is the author of several books on military headgear including A Gallery of Military Headdress, which is available on Amazon.com.