U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson (D-FL) introduced legislation today to make it easier for law enforcement officers to solve crimes involving guns.
The legislation would allow the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms (ATF) to create an electronic, searchable database of gun sale records and require all firearm dealers to provide the ATF electronic access to their gun sale records within two years.
Current law prohibits ATF agents from electronically searching gun sales records to determine who purchased a particular firearm used in the commission of a crime. Instead, ATF agents are required by law to physically search through thousands of boxes containing millions of paper files, or manually click through documents stored in non-searchable formats to trace a particular firearm.
“We should be helping law enforcement solve these crimes, not making it harder for them,” Nelson said. “The fact that there is a law on the books that forces agents to comb through millions of files by hand is absolutely ridiculous. This bill will fix that and help bring the agency into the 21st century.”
Local, state and federal law enforcement depend on ATF to trace guns found at crime scenes across the country. But the painstaking process of searching through thousands of physical boxes or having to physically visit individual firearm dealers often creates extensive delays for investigators.
In addition to delays, the fact that these gun sale records are physically stored at thousands of separate locations around the country by federal firearms licensees – instead of in an electronic database – makes them extremely susceptible to being lost or destroyed during a natural disaster – such as a hurricane or flood.
In fact, it was those concerns that led ATF to advise all federally licensed gun dealers in Florida to relocate their records to a secure facility before Hurricane Irma hit last fall. After Hurricane Katrina, gun dealers sent water-logged, mildewing records to ATF’s headquarters, where agents were forced to dry them out in the parking lot.
Previous attempts to modernize the way ATF searches its records have been unsuccessful due, in part, to opposition from gun rights groups, such as the NRA. To tamp down the privacy-related concerns often raised by these groups, Nelson’s legislation would strictly limit how and when ATF agents could use the electronic database.
For example, under Nelson’s bill, ATF agents would only be allowed to use the database to trace guns in connection with a criminal or national security investigation. It would also only allow agents to electronically search the records they already have, and would not give them access to any additional records that aren’t already available to them.
Lastly, agents using the database would only be allowed to enter a firearm’s identifying information to determine who purchased the weapon. It would not, for example, allow ATF agents to enter a person’s information to determine if they purchased a gun.
The legislation is supported the Association of Prosecuting Attorneys and the Federal Law Enforcement Officers Association. It has also been one of the top legislative priorities for Marjory Stoneman Douglas student leaders and the March for Our Lives organization.
The legislation – known as the Crime Gun Tracing Modernization Act – now heads to the Senate Judiciary Committee for consideration.
Here is a link to the legislation.