by / November 30, 1998
In a Rat's Nest

Ray Dussault's article, "Gun Records in a Rat's Nest," in the Justice & Technology section of the September 1998 issue, is one example of the many reasons I keep reading this publication. Surely all of us working in MIS in the public sector can identify with the reams of data in dusty boxes and file cabinets in thousands of file rooms that, if organized and computerized, would benefit the public immensely. The fact that Massachusetts now has gun sale records available at the click of a mouse button for law enforcement agencies is fantastic. Kathleen O'Toole, Massachusetts secretary of public safety and the driving force behind the project, has every right to be proud of this accomplishment, and I'm sure the 17,546 individuals who were identified as having gun licenses but shouldn't are wishing that those records would have stayed in the basement!

Frank L. Palmeri
Data Base Programmer/Analyst
NYS Dept. of Taxation & Finance
Albany, N.Y.


I read your recent article, "Gun Records in a Rat's Nest."

In it you say: "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."

I'm surprised that you're surprised, since people who obey the law and lawfully obtain permits for firearms are (surprise!) law-abiding citizens. You have apparently fallen for the stereotype of firearm owners as drug-crazed killers who will shoot it out with police at the drop of a hat.

I hope you will do some research on the Second Amendment, lawful firearm ownership, and the statistics on use of firearms for self-protection vs. the commission of crimes. To start off, check out .

Your article states that 5,200 firearms license have been revoked. I believe that there are on the order of 2,000,000 gun owners in Massachusetts. Doing the math, 0.26 percent of gun owners had their licenses revoked. Is that worth $700,000? Perhaps, perhaps not.

My views are not those of my employer.

Lee Fyock
Senior Software Engineer
Natick, Mass.


"'... 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 [Massachusetts Secretary of Public Safety Kathleen] O'Toole."

So you think if no gun registration shows on the officer's in-car computer, s/he can safely approach the stopped vehicle knowing there's no chance of a gun being carried? I certainly hope not.

Furthermore, if this new system makes pulling licenses so easy, why did Massachusetts just pass a law making firearm identification cards renewable and reducing the term of a license to carry [a gun] from five years to four? With this new technology, don't you think licenses should be good until a crime is committed?

Tom LaRoche
Software Engineer
Boylston, Mass.


OK, so now the gun license and gun ownership records of Massachusetts residents are more accessible to the state (commonwealth, over there) and "problems have been solved." In engineering and science, it is well-known that the solution to a problem reveals new ones and, regarding the Second Amendment, you have just created a new problem.

We in the gun-owners community are well-aware of
the role of Concord, Mass., related to the Revolutionary War. The "Shot Heard "Round the World" was fired at the British troops who were attempting to seize the citizens' arms from the Concord Armory. In more recent history, the Weimar government introduced gun registration as a step to control the violence of postwar Germany in the 1920s. After Hitler took power, he used those records to take guns out of the hands of the citizens. Since this "magic" had been exported to other European countries, it facilitated similar grabs by the invading troops who now knew where to look. Not handing over all the guns was an instant death sentence. This brings us to your newly created problem.

Sarah Brady, HCI and others have made the disarming of Americans their life's goal. So, have others, but for purposes that don't exactly enhance our freedom or safety. For this reason, you want to consider two things: One, this information should be subject to the privacy acts of 1974, et seq. that protects personal information. Two, you need a "what to do plan" just in case the unthinkable happens and somebody takes over, possibly by executive order. For the protection of your citizens, you need a destruction plan and the means.

Jerome C. Borden
Electronic Mechanic
McClellan Air Force Base, Calif.


I found your recent article on Massachusetts' gun laws to be most interesting. In addition to having been in the computer business for almost 40 years, I also have owned a couple of sporting goods stores and still own one in Winchester, Va.

We have seen the entire process up close and it is far from an accurate and valid process. We had the state police come and arrest one Army deserter in our store for attempting to buy a gun. In two weeks he was discharged and back in the store.

We have never seen the process work as intended. Usually gun sales are held up because of name errors, age problems, etc. Never because a felon attempts to buy a gun and is caught. A felon can buy a gun on the street easily and avoid the check.

With over 200 million guns in America, private sales don't ever go through any sort of a check system and no law requires they do.

And it is currently against the law to build a database of gun ownership. It appears that the Massachusetts law violates federal law. Few states and localities even require a gun license to own guns.

The Justice Department has estimated it would cost $25 billion to register all felons in all states, and this would take years.

No one wants the wrong people to possess guns, but this appears to be an impossible goal. With the new Brady law going into effect Dec. 1 and the FBI proposing a processing fee of $16 on each gun check and the check being required for long guns, it all seems pretty egregious and futile.

Terry Miller
President, Government Sales
Consultants Inc. and Shenandoah Sports
Great Falls, Va.

The degree of firearms regulation that we allow our government is one of the most hotly debated issues in American society, and rightly so. The issue was important enough to the Founding Fathers that they made space to address it in the Bill of Rights. Today, government agencies often grapple with the issue on both philosophic and practical levels.

Most people would agree that convicted felons and the insane should have their right to bear arms curtailed. Massachusetts and other federal, state and local agencies have a great deal of important data available on gun ownership, and modern technology gives them the tools to put that data into a usable and quickly accessible
form. While criminals can certainly purchase firearms on the street, it doesn't necessarily follow that the solution is to allow them to purchase weapons legally in a gun store. No instant check system is perfect, but the effort in Massachusetts may be a step toward keeping legal purchase of firearms away from criminals, while eliminating egregious waiting periods for law-abiding citizens.

Do we trust that government will always use this data appropriately? Eternal vigilance is still the price of liberty.

Raymond Dussault
Justice & Technology Editor
Government Technology


Eyes on Wildlife

Wow Bill -- what can I say? Thank you so much for the wonderful article ["Learning with Wolves" September 1998]. The kids are thrilled -- we received the magazine today and have also found it on the Web site.

Again, thank you for your interest in the project and for helping to promote education programs.

Becky Rennicke
Eyes on Wildlife
Perham, Minn.


To Regulate ...

I find it highly ironic that your September issue had an article ["To Regulate or Not to Regulate"] on the federal government's threat to regulate privacy on the Internet. In the same issue you ran a news short on laws mandating a national personal identifier ["Federal Laws Could Lead to National ID Card"].

Contrary to promises made by Congress, the Social Security number has become a virtual universal identifier. Without federal measures to safeguard use of that identifier, we have criminals stealing identities for fraudulent purposes. People are being arrested, sued, dunned, harassed and their credit records ruined largely because the number is so easy to obtain and use to gather other personal documentation.

Before the feds implement another "universal identifier" or invest a lot of energy in privacy on the Internet, they better convince me that measures will be taken to protect me from the folly of their good intentions. (Don't get me started on backdoor encryption keys and V-chips.)

Jerry Lane
Executive Director
Community Mental Health Board
DeKalb County, Ill.


Thanks for your note. We have followed the issue of privacy vs. access for a number of years and are very interested in how this issue will work itself out. Privacy has finally become an issue here, as it has been in Europe since the end of World War II. And it will become more of an issue, since the European Union will insist that personal data shared between the EU and the United States (even within a U.S. company with a branch office in the EU) be regulated by some kind of statutory privacy protection.

On the other side of the coin is the increasing volume of electronic commerce -- from point of sale or shopping network purchases with a credit or ATM card, to Internet transactions -- which not only requires some kind of personal identification and verification such as a digital signature, but which also has the potential to track all purchases made by a person and turn that information into a marketing bonanza, or nightmare.

As for back door encryption, in a recent interview we did with Janet Reno (Visions, May, 1998), she said, I think for the first time, that "the administration is not wedded to the idea of key escrow; it is only one option that is under consideration." Many of our law enforcement readers are concerned that strong encryption will halt their ability to wiretap, even if they have a court order to do so. So the issues are complex, and I'd love to find a workable solution to write about. In the meantime, we'll keep covering the issues and developments and I hope you'll stay tuned.

Wayne Hanson
Editor, Government Technology

December Table of Contents

Letters to the Editor may be faxed to Dennis McKenna at 916/932-1470 or sent via e-mail. Please list your telephone number for confirmation. Publication is solely at the discretion of the editors. Government Technology reserves the right to edit submissions for length.