Federal Firearms Licensee Data

ATF's Compliance with Statutory Restrictions Gao ID: GGD-96-174 September 11, 1996

The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms (ATF) issues various categories of federal firearms licenses, including those for manufacturers, importers, and dealers of firearms. Firearms dealers licenses are granted to dealers and pawnbrokers who sell guns at wholesale or retail and to gunsmiths who repair firearms. This report, the last in a series of GAO reports on ATF, reviews ATF's compliance with legislative restrictions on maintaining federal firearms licensee data. Concerns have been raised that ATF has not been complying with the restrictions on centralizing and consolidating data from federal firearms licensee records. GAO (1) identifies and describes the ATF data systems that contain retail firearms purchaser data and (2) determines whether ATF's Out-of-Business Records System and Multiple Sales System comply with the legislative data restrictions. GAO also assesses ATF's overall legal interpretation of the data restrictions.

GAO found that: (1) ATF identified and described 14 national data systems and 4 subsystems that relate to firearms; (2) according to ATF, five systems and one subsystem contain data that readily identify retail purchasers or possessors of specific firearms; (3) the Out-of-Business Records System contains records that federal firearms licensees are required by statute to forward to ATF within 30 days following a permanent discontinuance of their business; (4) the Multiple Sales System contains data from reports that federal firearms licensees are required by statute to send to ATF showing sales or other dispositions of two or more pistols and/or revolvers to an unlicensed person at one time or during any 5 consecutive business days; (5) the two systems, as designed, comply with the data restrictions and do not violate the appropriation rider prohibition against consolidating or centralizing licensee records; (6) on the basis of GAO's review, observations, and discussions with ATF officials, it believes that ATF operated the two systems consistently with their design, with one exception relating to the Multiple Sales System; (7) GAO agrees with ATF's view of section 926(a), but GAO believes that ATF's interpretation of the annual appropriation rider was too narrow; (8) ATF contended that both section 926(a) and the appropriation rider restricted it from issuing rules and regulations imposing additional reporting requirements on licensees but did not restrict what it did internally with information it otherwise acquired; (9) GAO agrees that the restriction in section 926(a) limits ATF only from prescribing certain rules or regulations, but the appropriation rider contains no language that would limit its application either to prescribing rules and regulations or to imposing additional reporting requirements on licensees; (10) GAO believes that the rider has legal effect independent of section 926; (11) GAO does not believe that the rider precludes all information practices and data systems that involve an element of "consolidating or centralizing" licensee records; (12) to the extent that the centralization or consolidation of firearms transaction records is incident to carrying out a specific ATF responsibility and does not entail the aggregation of data on firearms transactions in a manner that would go beyond the purposes of the Gun Control Act of 1968, as amended, GAO does not believe that the rider would be violated; and (13) given its legal position on the limited scope of the rider, ATF had not systematically analyzed its data systems and information practices to give appropriate effect to the appropriation rider.


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