The U.S. Government Accountability Office, or GAO, has given the ATF unsatisfactory ratings for improper record-keeping. The oversight agency instructed that the ATF “should better adhere to its policies” in its report. The ATF agreed with the GAO findings and plans to follow the report’s recommendations.
Specifically, the GAO found that the ATF failed to comply with its record-keeping policies by storing FFL records on an in-house server and keeping records that should have been destroyed, including records of multiple sales. The GAO audited 4 of the 16 ATF servers and took issue with what they found on three of the four data systems.
These policy violations represent a potential breach of privacy and a breach of trust. The ATF is prohibited from maintaining a database of gun owners and must carefully walk the line between tracking and targeting illegal gun use while keeping legal gun owner’s privacy intact.
“[The] ATF is responsible for enforcing certain criminal statutes related to firearms, and must balance its role in combating the illegal use of firearms with protecting the privacy rights of law-abiding gun owners,” states the GAO report. “As part of this balance, FFLs are required to maintain firearms transaction records, while [the] ATF has the statutory authority to obtain these records under certain circumstances. [The] ATF must also comply with an appropriations act provision that restricts the agency from using appropriated funds to consolidate or centralize FFL records.”
The ATF runs a program called Access 2000 (A2K) that allows the National Tracing Center to electronically search certain FFL records to perform gun traces. These FFLs volunteer the data to the Tracing Center. The catch is that the information is supposed to be stored on-site at the FFLs — the GAO found some of the information stored on a single server at the ATF.
The server kept records of out-of-business FFLs. The ATF deleted the records to comply with its policy. The GAO also recommended that the ATF establish stronger guidelines on how to use A2K out-of-business records.
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The GAO also discovered that the ATF mishandled records from the Firearm Recovery Notification Program or FRNP. The FRNP is a database of guns that they have reason to believe are involved in criminal activity. These include stolen guns and uncovered crime guns and guns tied to ATF criminal investigations. FRNP records are supposed to be destroyed after two years.
What the GAO found instead was that records from between 2007 and 2009 were still intact and due to a “technical defect” accessible to ATF agents “beyond what ATF policy permits.” The ATF ended the program in 2009 and deleted the records in 2016.
Lastly, the GAO discovered that the ATF was not destroying multiple sales records after two years per ATF policy. The GAO report stated that the ATF was “inconsistent” in destroying multiple sales records and was keeping data on more than 10,000 people. The ATF keeps records on individuals who purchase two or more handguns within five consecutive business days in order to track straw purchasers.
The ATF has agreed with the GAO but only time will tell if these policy violations have affected gun owners. The GAO will provide updated information on its report once the ATF has taken action and updated their record-keeping methods.
“We’re a small agency with a big job,” said ATF Deputy Director Thomas E. Brandon in an interview on CBS’ “Sunday Morning.” Brandon lamented the restrictions that prevent the agency from keeping deeper records on guns and gun owners.
“There’s a lot of things that don’t make sense in this town, you know?” Brandon told CBS correspondent Richard Schlesinger. “And, so, yeah, would it be efficient and effective? Absolutely. Would the taxpayers benefit with public safety? Absolutely. Are we allowed to do it? No.”