On June 8, ProPublica published a story titled, “The Secret IRS Files: Trove of Never-Before-Seen Records Reveal How the Wealthiest Avoid Income Tax.” The salacious item focused on how America’s ultra-wealthy navigated the Internal Revenue Code to lessen their tax burden. ProPublica relied on “a vast cache of IRS information,” including individuals’ private tax returns, that it presumably obtained through a politically-motivated government leaker. On June 16, ProPublica published an article based on similar IRS information targeting a candidate for Manhattan District Attorney ahead of the June 22 New York City Democratic primary.
The exact source of the leaked IRS data is unknown. On June 14, Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) stated, “Look, either the IRS leaked this, or there was a hack. And my guess is the IRS, somebody at the IRS leaked this in order to affect the tax debate and remind people that there are some very wealthy Americans.”
This episode should prove instructive to gun owners. The leak suggests that government agencies or individuals within them will abuse sensitive information on private citizens in order to advance a political agenda. Moreover, government agencies have shown an inability to secure private data even in the absence of internal malevolence. This understanding should inform all policy debates concerning increased surveillance of the gun-owning public.
Billionaire and gun control financier Michael Bloomberg was one of the wealthy individuals targeted in the leak. A Bloomberg spokesperson responded to the ProPublica investigation in a press release which stated,
The release of a private citizen’s tax returns should raise real privacy concerns regardless of political affiliation or views on tax policy. In the United States no private citizen should fear the illegal release of their taxes. We intend to use all legal means at our disposal to determine which individual or government entity leaked these and ensure that they are held responsible.
For once, Bloomberg is correct. Sensitive data that the government keeps on private individuals, or that private individuals are forced to hand over to the government, should be protected from public disclosure. However, as this case illustrates, the federal government has proven that, despite harsh punishments for leakers, it is not equal to the task.
The last several years have shown that the federal bureaucracy is increasingly the domain of partisan ideologues. Consider the federal bureaucracy’s incessant leaks during the Trump administration. The Federation of American Scientists reported on April 8, 2019 that “Leaks of Classified Info Surge Under Trump,” and that “the number of leaks of classified information reported as potential crimes by federal agencies reached record high levels during the first two years of the Trump Administration.” One need not wear a MAGA hat to understand that the federal bureaucracy is a mostly one-way partisan sieve.
Even when the federal government has every incentive to protect private information, as in the case of the private data of federal bureaucrats, the regime has proven impotent. In 2015, hackers breached the Office of Personnel Management’s records. OPM maintains private data on millions of current and retired federal employees and contractors.
According to a 2016 item in Wired magazine,
The hackers had first pillaged a massive trove of background-check data… OPM’s digital archives contain roughly 18 million copies of Standard Form 86, a 127-page questionnaire for federal security clearance that includes probing questions about an applicant’s personal finances, past substance abuse, and psychiatric care.
The article went on to note, “The hackers next delved into the complete personnel files of 4.2 million employees, past and present. Then, just weeks before OPM booted them out, they grabbed approximately 5.6 million digital images of government employee fingerprints.”
Now consider some of the gun control movement’s favorite policies. While running for president in 2020, Bloomberg sought to “Require every gun buyer to get a permit before making a purchase.” The 2020 Democratic Party platform supported “licensing requirements for owning firearms.” Candidate Joe Biden called for the registration of tens of millions of commonly-owned semi-automatic firearms such as the AR-15. Biden ATF director nominee David Chipman and the gun control lobbying organization he works for (Giffords) also support forcing law-abiding gun owners to register their firearms with the federal government.
All of these schemes would require the government to maintain sensitive information on law-abiding gun owners. The secrecy of this private data would be dependent upon the goodwill of partisan bureaucrats – a thing in which no reasonable person would choose to put their faith.
Moreover, consider ATF and its allies in the legacy media’s constant complaints about the National Tracing Center.
Federal law requires those who purchase a firearm at a gun dealer to fill out a form 4473. This record of the firearm transfer is then stored by the dealer on their premises. This creates a system whereby if a gun is found at a crime scene ATF can trace the firearm to the last retail purchase. However, since the records are stored with each FFL, the system is decentralized in a manner that protects against government abuse of gun owner data.
Gun dealers are required to maintain 4473s for 20 years. When a dealer goes out of business they must send their last 20 years of records to ATF’s National Tracing Center to facilitate firearm traces.
In May, the New York Times groaned,
The gun lobby, led by the National Rifle Association, has for years systematically blocked plans to modernize the agency’s paper-based weapons-tracing system with a searchable database. As a result, records of gun sales going back decades are stored in boxes stacked seven high, waiting to be processed, against every wall.
At the time the New York Times article came out, NRA-ILA pointed out that a “modernized” and easily searchable compilation of the tracing center’s data would amount to a partial firearm registry and facilitate firearm confiscation. Of course, any such “modernization” of 4473 data would also make it easier for malicious actors inside or outside the government to target their political enemies through the disclosure of gun purchase data.
The IRS leak suggests that the federal government is populated with partisans willing to break the law to divulge sensitive information on private citizens in order to push a political agenda. Therefore, gun owners are right to expect that of any scheme to collect gun ownership data would result in a similar abuse of power. As the threat of severe punishment has proven inadequate in stemming politically-motivated leaks, the goal must be to deprive the federal government of this information entirely.