Gun Records in a Rat's Nest

Gun sale records move from the basement into CD storage.

by / August 31, 1998
Massachusetts' gun sale records were once stacked in bursting cardboard boxes. Rats and pigeons turned reams of data into nests while felons and people who had slipped into psychosis held gun licenses issued years before they stumbled off a mental edge or committed a crime. Now turn the dial on the time machine and move out of the dark ages -- 750,000 gun sale records are out of the busted boxes and loaded on to compact disks, retrievable at the touch of a computer key.

"The records, if you can believe it, really were out in the state police headquarters in Boston, stacked floor to ceiling. They were full of rodents, bugs, pigeon nests and asbestos," said Kathleen O'Toole, Massachusetts secretary of public safety. "Before we could scan the records, we had to have them cleaned."

So that is what staff did, putting in thousands of hours cleaning and scanning the records to create an easily accessible gun-record database. It cost $700,000, but the work has paid generous returns on the time and money invested.

Digital Dream

The system came online in January, and a paper nightmare has been turned into a digital dream. "Before the disk, a single records search took 74 days and cost 5,600 dollars in staff time. Now we've trimmed that down to seconds," explained O'Toole. "It's a big difference: less than 30 seconds and a cost of about 90 cents per search."

Even more important, though, is the law enforcement work the system has made possible. Before the records were digitized, yanking a gun permit was a case-by-case decision; today, felons and domestic-
violence perpetrators are being scooped up with greater ease, and their guns sold off or confiscated by the thousands.

Within days of going online, the system had identified 17,546 individuals who had gun licenses but shouldn't. Of that group, 2,862 of them were wanted on active felony warrants; another 3,923 were identified as individuals with a history of domestic violence and active restraining orders against them. The word went out to law enforcement agencies across the commonwealth and, so far, 5,200 firearms licenses have been revoked.

"Firearms identification (FID) cards are issued to be good for a lifetime; other handgun carry permits are renewable every few years. In between, I didn't really know what you were doing unless you happened to do it here in town," explained Lt. Wayne McCarthy, with the Framingham, Mass., Police Department. "Until the system came online you could commit a crime out of town, and I would probably never know I needed to yank the license. If I issued you an FID card at age 22, you could be a goddamned nut by the time you're 42, and I wouldn't know. Now, we are getting criminal and other pertinent information on a regular basis. Soon, we will be able to access it instantly."

There are no dramatic stories to tell yet -- no lives that were saved in the nick of time -- but, according to some, the proof of success may be in the stories cops don't have to tell.

"It is hard to measure the success of the system in terms of crimes prevented. If I don't pull a license, and the guy shoots someone, it will be in all the papers," said McCarthy. "But if I take the gun, nothing happens. That is how this system shows its success -- in the stories that don't have to be told."

Information Loophole

According to McCarthy, despite all of the benefits of the new database, police are still feeling the inefficiencies of the old system. The FID card allowed you to purchase as many guns as you wanted, but it didn't track the number you purchased; the owner was registered, the guns were not.

If a name pops up on McCarthy's computer screen as a current felon or someone with a restraining order against them, he will start the process of revoking their gun license. Usually, that means sending a registered letter ordering the individual to come to the station and turn in their guns. Surprisingly, most people respond, and the local departments will even hold the weapons to facilitate a sale to a legitimate gun dealer. If the individual doesn't come in on his own, the police execute a search warrant to confiscate the guns. It's in these situations when the old system's weakness is exposed: Cops just don't know how many guns that individual owns.

"If they bring in a couple rifles and say, 'Here you go; here are my guns,' I have no way of knowing if he has a whole arsenal still hiding in his closet," McCarthy said. All the old records are in the system now, but they have data gaps due to the nature of the original data. However, if you purchase a gun in Massachusetts today, the information -- including specific gun information -- is collected on a special, easily scanable form. Within 24 hours the information is entered into the system, keeping the data continuously updated and accessible to officers around the clock. That, according to O'Toole, was Phase Two; Phase One was creating the database, and now Phase Three is on the way.

"I want gun dealers to enter their information directly into a terminal at the time of purchase. That way, they know right off if someone can even purchase a gun, and police departments will know instantly if a local resident has. The next step is flipping the switch to make the system accessible from every police station and the laptop computers of officers in the field. That way, if an officer is conducting a traffic stop, they will know the gun ownership history of the car's registered owner," explained O'Toole. "Police work today is a far cry from what it was back when I was on patrol. I spent 30 percent of my time in the station filling out paperwork. My opinion is that officers should only have to return to the station to drop off prisoners, and technology can help make that possible. That means more actual police man-hours in the field, and that means better service for the community."

Ray Dussault is a Sacramento, Calif.-based writer.

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