What happens when a “database” has no identifiers: the ATF’s gun registry

The ATF’s Nonsensical Non-Searchable Gun Databases, Explained

This week’s readings were about the importance and logic behind the creation of authority control files and controlled vocabularies in order to have consistent, searchable records. This article discusses how a lack of standardized naming resources and record consolidation for the ATF’s gun registry causes a myriad of issues when legally purchased guns are under investigation or involved in crimes.

Due to current legislation, the ATF’s registry cannot be searchable or consolidated into a database, “The ATF’s record-keeping system lacks certain basic functionalities standard to every other database created in the modern age. Despite its vast size, and importance to crime fighters, it is less sophisticated than an online card catalog maintained by a small town public library”. In fact, the only digital component to the registry is the image files, whose naming system can only be traced if the physical copy of the purchase record can be found among the hundreds of boxes in the ATF’s archive. The article explains that, “The ATF processes a high number of trace requests: 372,992 last year. The agency says a trace takes on average four to seven business days to complete. If not for the ban on consolidating data into a searchable system, the ATF could create a database that allows it to immediately check the sales history of any gun used in a crime.”

The creation of a database with authority files for gun dealers, an archive of all gun models with standardized vocabulary, and a record (paired with an institutionally created unique identifier) of every legal gun purchased would drastically lessen the time it takes for the ATF to track down ownership records, greatly improving the speed of federal investigations, perhaps ultimately saving lives.

We spend a great deal of time in class discussing the importance of knowledge organization and how effective databases, metadata schemas, OPACs and interoperable records has changed the way people all over the world access information, and I think this article is an incredible and weighty example of how the creation of authorities and searchable databases could have significant real world implications.

Submitted by Drew Facklam

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Posted in Archives, Cataloging, Classification

by Hugh McLeod

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Pratt Institute School of Information
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