On Thursday, Vice President Biden sketched out early hints of what gun control reform might look like. One potential reform concerns something that you might mistakenly assume already exists: a central database of gun transactions in the US, maintained by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms. The NRA has blocked all such efforts in the past. New York Times reporter Sheryl Gay Stolberg tells Bob why the ATF's record-keeping on gun sales is actually incredibly antiquated.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: From WNYC in New York, this is On the Media. I'm Brooke Gladstone.
BOB GARFIELD: And I'm Bob Garfield. At a press conference in Washington on Thursday afternoon, Vice President Joe Biden sketched out his first suggestion of what gun policy reform might look like after Newtown.
VICE PRESIDENT BIDEN: Coming from the groups we’ve met with, there is a surprising recurrence of suggestions that we have universal background checks and not just close the “gun show loophole” but total universal background checks.
BOB GARFIELD: CNN cut away from Biden’s speech to go to commercial and returned with breaking news on the other side of the country in Taft, California.
CNN REPORTER: There has been a school shooting at Taft High School. The shooting happened this morning around 9 a.m. local time, we’re told. According to reports, at least two people were shot.
BOB GARFIELD: Next Tuesday, Biden's task force will deliver its gun policy suggestions to the White House. One potential reform concerns something that you might mistakenly assume already exists, a central database of gun transactions in the United States maintained by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms. The National Rifle Association has blocked all such efforts in the past. In fact, the government's recordkeeping on gun ownership is stunningly antiquated. Sheryl Gay Stolberg wrote about it for the New York Times. Sheryl, welcome toOn the Media.
SHERYL GAY STOLBERG: I'm happy to be here.
BOB GARFIELD: So if this were CSI or some other TV show and the cops had a gun from a crime scene, you know, you see them at one of [LAUGHS] their magical computers typing in a serial number and, lo and behold, up pops the photo of the person the gun is registered to and all their particulars. I gather it ain’t like that in real life.
SHERYL GAY STOLBERG: Right. In real life, the ATF has to follow a very circuitous manual routine to track gun ownership. There is no central database of gun transactions.
BOB GARFIELD: Now, this is not because the federal government hasn't thought of that. This is the result of being essentially handcuffed by the law. Can you tell me what the law is in early 2013 and how it got there?
SHERYL GAY STOLBERG: So in 1986, Congress adopted the Firearms Owners Protection Act, and that law prevents the ATF from establishing a central database. Instead, the ATF has to comb through records, computer printouts, hand-scrawled index cards, sometimes water-stained sheets of paper to gather up necessary data on firearms transactions.
BOB GARFIELD: And the reason for this is that legislatures friendly to NRA have tucked certain provisions into bills that have nothing to do with gun control, in order to make sure that the ATF's job is as cumbersome as possible. What is their thinking?
SHERYL GAY STOLBERG: Well, I think the argument made by the NRA is that a central database is tantamount to Big Brother. It could be used by the government to send agents into people's homes and repossess their guns. It's interesting that the NRA, in speaking about the Newtown case, suggested a central database of people who are mentally ill. But it, nonetheless, opposes a database of registered gun owners.
BOB GARFIELD: Let me play the devil's advocate here for a moment because if the Second Amendment was intended by the framers to allow the public to do exactly what they had done and rebel against tyranny, then it would certainly make sense in that context for the government not to be [LAUGHS] able to preemptively stop the rebels from taking a stand.
SHERYL GAY STOLBERG: But the counter argument is that the guns that are being used in massacres like the Newtown massacre are not being kept by people for their Second Amendment right to defend themselves or to even rise up against [LAUGHS] the, the tyranny of government. They are military assault style weapons that can fire off round after round after round in a matter of seconds and that the only real purpose for these guns is killing people.
BOB GARFIELD: At the moment, something is going on in New York State that seems to create a bit of a conflict between the First Amendment and the Second one. A newspaper called the Journal News and then subsequently the website Gawker, published information about gun owners that it had harvested from public records, enraging the gun owners for a number of reasons, not the least of which is they feared for their own personal security, but clearly permitted as a matter of available public information. Does the furor over the Journal News episode foreshadow the debate ahead on gun registration and easily accessible databases?
SHERYL GAY STOLBERG: Well, I think that's an interesting question, and I guess perhaps it does. I have to confess that I was very conflicted when I read about that case, as a journalist. On the one hand, this newspaper published readily available data. Newspapers do that all the time. But the paper also published the precise street addresses of gun owners, and I do have to say that we’re often careful with precise street addresses. And there are some things that newspapers traditionally haven’t published. For instance, we don't publish the names of rape victims, although in some places that's changing. So I’m not sure what the right move was journalistically, but I do think that the backlash against that publication is sort of parallel to the strong feelings about a gun registry.
BOB GARFIELD: I'm wondering, Sheryl, if this just bespeaks a conflict between the public's right to know and the gun owners right, as they have asserted, to privacy.
SHERYL GAY STOLBERG: Absolutely, there’s a conflict. We have these conflicts all the time and the Supreme Court settles them, and that is the debate that the President and the Congress and the American public will be wrestling with in the weeks and months to come.
BOB GARFIELD: All right, Sheryl, thank you very much.
SHERYL GAY STOLBERG: Thank you.
BOB GARFIELD: Sheryl Gay Stolberg is a Washington correspondent for the New York Times.