According to documents obtained by the American Civil Liberties Union, an agent at the Department of Justice proposed a joint initiative between the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) as a way to combat gun trafficking.
“DEA Phoenix Division Office is working closely with ATF on attacking the guns going to [redacted] and the gun shows, to include programs/operation with LPRs at the gun shows,” read a heavily redacted email from April 2009.
The proposal was part of the DEA’s larger initiative to build a massive database of license plate images collected by automated license plate readers. DEA Administrator Michele Leonhart told the Wall Street Journal that the “proposal in the email was only a suggestion” and “never authorized by the DEA.”
Automated license plate readers are often used by private bond agents to scan parking lots for vehicles belonging to fugitives. The devices are usually mounted on the back of tow trucks and dragged through parking lots.
In the government’s hands, the devices could be used not only to scan for particular license plates but also to collect data from all license plates and enter it into a database. As the ACLU report points out, license plate readers do not distinguish between people transporting guns legally, illegally or even if they are transporting a gun at all.
Research has shown that the vast majority of gun show attendees are not criminals, nor are they there to avoid a criminal background check. The Justice Department itself published a survey finding that only 0.7 percent of criminals obtain their guns at gun shows.