WASHINGTON -- A federal government agency has 48 million records of firearms transactions stored in a Landover, Md., warehouse and would like to centralize them on a computer, a move that would speed the tracing of guns used in crimes.
But, year after year, gun-control opponents in Congress have made sure that the bill that finances the agency prevented that.
The same agency, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms (ATF), wants to do research on putting into American-made explosives "taggants," microscopic multicolored chips that would allow the tracing of explosives after they are used.
That, too, has been prevented by Congress.
Blaming the National Rifle Association (NRA) for these restrictions, Rep. Charles E. Schumer, a New York Democrat, yesterday called them "little sorts of logs on the tracks that the NRA has thrown in our way over the last decade that really hamper law enforcement."
Democratic Rep. Steny Hoyer of Maryland, the new chairman of the appropriations subcommittee that oversees the ATF budget, appeared at a news conference with Mr. Schumer only hours before his subcommittee voted behind closed doors to drop the prohibitions from the agency's appropriations bill for the next fiscal year.
"These are not big items in the scheme of things, but . . . the successful prosecution of law enforcement in this country is the cumulative efforts in little ways that add up to success in making our society a safer place," Mr. Hoyer said.
Mr. Schumer, chairman of the subcommittee on crime and criminal justice, said it is "just utterly amazing to me that there is a law that prevents law enforcement from centralizing records about who has guns and who shouldn't have guns."
Later, Richard Gardiner, NRA legislative counsel, said his organization was opposed to dropping the prohibition on the grounds that it amounts to creation of a central gun registry, something that was prohibited by a 1986 law.
He also described the tracing of firearms as a "pointless exercise -- interesting but irrelevant."
The restrictions were prompted by ATF issuance in 1978 of proposed regulations on identification and tracing of guns -- regulations blocked by Congress after the NRA raised its objections to a national gun registry. Separate legislation in 1986 prohibits establishment of a national gun registry, but the restrictions in the appropriations bill have still been carried over from year to year.
Jack Killorin, an ATF spokesman, said the changes made by the Hoyer subcommittee yesterday do not affect that law. What they would do, if adopted by Congress, is allow his agency to conduct swifter traces.
Buyers of guns from licensed dealers must fill out a federal form, which is retained by the dealer until the dealer goes out of business, when it is turned over to the ATF. The agency has 48 million forms.
Using serial numbers and the names of manufacturers, the ATF traces 60,000 guns a year, starting each trace with the manufacturer, Mr. Killorin said. Forty percent of those traces lead the agency to the records it has stored in the Maryland warehouse. If those records were centralized on a computer, the agency could start its traces by punching the serial number and manufacturer into the computer and sometimes come up with the record of the gun sale, saving weeks.