Here is an excerpt from Sari Horwitz and James Grimaldi's article in The Washington Post:
"The National Tracing Center is the only place in the nation authorized to trace gun sales. Here, researchers with the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives make phone calls and pore over handwritten records from across the country to track down gun owners. In contrast with such state-of-the-art, 21st-century crime-fighting techniques as DNA matching and digital fingerprint analysis, gun tracing is an antiquated, laborious process done mostly by hand. The government is prohibited from putting gun ownership records into an easily accessible format, such as a searchable computer database. For decades, the National Rifle Association has lobbied successfully to block all attempts at such computerization, arguing against any national registry of firearm ownership. Concerns about government regulation of gun ownership have limited the resources available to the ATF, led to strict regulatory restrictions and left the agency without leadership... For the FBI, there are 19 lines of congressional direction. For the DEA, there are 10. For the ATF, there are 87 lines, including the requirement to keep the gun-tracing database hidden from the public... In 1972, when the ATF separated from the Internal Revenue Service and became its own bureau within the Treasury Department, it had about 2,500 agents. At the time, the FBI had 8,700, the DEA 1,500 and the U.S. Marshals 1,900. Thirty-eight years later, the FBI is up to 13,000, the DEA has more than tripled to 5,000, and there are 3,300 federal marshals. The ATF, now a part of the Justice Department, remains at 2,500... The ATF does not have enough personnel to fully inspect the firearms and explosives dealers under its charge. The bureau has about 600 inspectors to cover more than 115,000 firearms dealers - about 55,000 collectors and about 60,000 retail sellers... By law, the ATF can inspect dealers for compliance only once a year. But despite improvements, officials acknowledge that, on average, dealers are inspected only about once a decade... When inspectors document persistent or severe violations, they can issue warning letters or hold warning conferences with licensees. When problems are critical, they can move to take away the license. Dealers, however, can drag out the process for years and sell guns the entire time... One of the ATF's chief concerns is missing guns... Nationwide, dealers lose track of an enormous number of guns. Since 2005, 3,847 inspections have documented 113,642 guns that cannot be found... The process is complicated because dealers by law do not have to take inventory. In a 2003 provision authored by Rep. Todd Tiahrt (R-Kan.), Congress prohibited the ATF from requiring dealers to do inventories. As a result, ATF inspectors sometimes have to spend days or weeks poring through a dealer's paperwork and physically matching it to the guns on hand... New legislation, pending before Congress, would further limit the agency's ability to regulate dealers... The agency, for the first time, would have to show that a dealer knew the law and intentionally disregarded it; in other words, the ATF would have to establish the dealer's state of mind at the time of the violation. The NRA said the law is necessary because dealers often are harshly punished for trivial paperwork errors." Link to Full Article
Analysis: That was a really long excerpt, I know, but necessarily so. The article itself is five pages long, and I didn't even cover the difficulty the ATF has in poring through thousands of handwritten forms and documents it receives every year from gun sellers who go out of business. I strongly recommend that you read the entire article to get a better grasp of the immense challenges the ATF is dealing with when it comes to stopping the southbound flow of weapons into Mexico, on top of domestic illegal firearms transactions.
I've always said that the best solution (which won't fix the problem, but should make it better) to southbound weapons trafficking is to allocate a significant amount of additional resources to the ATF and not change laws (i.e. reinstate the assault weapons ban). You've read how insanely understaffed they are, and how archaic their tracing process is by necessity. The demands being placed on them to conduct inspections of gun sellers, review records, and run investigations of suspected traffickers are astronomical compared to what they can realistically accomplish with the resources they currently have.
However, I was very wrong. We really need to change several laws, and I'm not talking about having a change of heart on the assault weapons ban. It's a strange position for me because I'm very pro-gun, being a former law enforcement agent and current gun owner. I also usually support most of the NRA's position on gun policy. But precisely because I'm a former agent, I can't fathom the idiocy of the current laws and regulations that tie the hands of the very agency dedicated to stopping weapons trafficking.
Think about it from a practical/rational perspective. We all have to register our vehicles with county government agencies, which means we have personal information in a government database. Our (very private and personal) medical records are now being kept in computerized databases. If we're homeowners, all details related to transactions with our homes are maintained in a government database. The government also has access to tons of personal information on our military members, many of whom are gun owners. Basically, if we drive a car, pay taxes, have a job, receive any sort of government benefit, or own a bank account or investments, our most personal information is stored in a computerized database which the government can access in some way.
The NRA and its staunchest supporters have major heartburn over the computerized registration of firearms. Seriously? OK, I can understand that we have SO many other things registered that gun owners don't want to deal with one more thing. I also understand that some gun owners are fiercely protective of their Second Amendment rights, and are fearful that gun registration will somehow eventually lead to the government either taxing their guns or taking them away, although I think those fears are a bit unwarranted.
But what happens when laws regarding gun registration impede on a US agency's ability to catch bad guys? On one hand, you have people screaming to stop the southbound flow of firearms from our gun shops into DTO hands, and demanding that the ATF do moremoremore. On the other hand, you have people lobbying Congress to create even more laws to prevent the ATF from doing almost anything, and I suspect that many of those people don't care where the weapons go or how they're used, as long as their rights to own one aren't impeded. The article briefly mentions the Tiahrt Amendment, but doesn't tell you about another one of its restrictions. The Amendment specifically prohibits most information sharing regarding trace data between the ATF and agencies with any sort of intelligence function. God forbid anyone might want to conduct some sort of interstate analysis on weapons trafficking to ascertain some sort of pattern to try and stop the bad guys. This happened to me when I was an analyst in California; I tried to write the first state fusion center-initiated joint analysis of southbound weapons trafficking with my colleagues at the fusion centers in Arizona, New Mexico, and Texas. Unfortunately, the keystone of the project was ATF firearms trace data. The ATF supervisory agents I spoke with were so willing to help, and really wanted to see our product succeed. Unfortunately, their hands were legally tied, and they couldn't give us the information we desperately needed to cement our (in my opinion) groundbreaking joint product. It never saw the light of day.
So what say I? Let the ATF do their freakin' job! The restrictions that Congress is imposing on the ATF right now is like telling the FBI that all fingerprints need to be kept on paper, and you can only match up those of a suspect with those on file by using a magnifying glass. Or having a license plate number of a hit-and-run suspect and having to find the vehicle records by poring through thousands of Excel spreadsheets. I'm firmly of the mindset that if you're not doing anything wrong/illegal, then you have nothing to worry about by having your firearm transaction details in a computerized database. It's like having to undergo additional screening at the airport. Yeah, it sucks and it's inconvenient, but if you're not smuggling explosives or box cutters, you'll be on your way soon enough.
It's all about striking the right balance. I never thought an ultra-conservative group like the NRA could have anything in common with an ultra-liberal group like the ACLU, but they do. Both are groups with strong public voices who often impede the ability of law enforcement agencies to do their jobs. It is entirely possible for gun owners and legal buyers in the US to keep owning and legally buying guns, while at the same time, the ATF works with significantly more agents and analysts to prevent straw buyers from buying guns for transport to Mexico. But until Congress unties the hands - or at least loosens them up quite a bit - of the ATF, we're not going to see much slowing down of gun traffic flowing south.