The tin-foil hat club has been claiming for years that a secret gun registry exists. They argue that the government has the capability to build one without our knowledge. On Friday, 26 U.S. Senators started asking that question.

A letter organized by Senator Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) to James Clapper, Director of National Intelligence, seeks to find answers to just how deep the infringements on our liberties reach.

The Senators ask Clapper in the letter “to publicly provide information about the duration and scope of the program and provide examples of its effectiveness in providing unique intelligence, if such examples exist.”

The letter also addresses the issue of a “secret gun-registry”:

Furthermore, we are troubled by the possibility of this bulk collection authority being applied to other categories of records. The PATRIOT Act’s business record authority is very broad in its scope. It can be used to collect information on credit card purchases, pharmacy records, library records, firearms sales records, financial information, and a range of other sensitive subjects. And the bulk collection of authority could potentially be sued to supersede bans on maintaining gun owner databases, or laws protecting privacy of medical records, financial reports, and records of books and movie purchases. These other types of bulk collection could clearly have a significant impact on Americans’ privacy and liberties as well.

The data collected on the U.S. Department of Justice form 4473 includes the purchaser’s name and residence as well as the type of firearm purchased. The National Instant Criminal Background Check System (NICS) purges information after 24 hours. Licensed sellers are required to maintain records of transactions, including serial numbers, for the life of the business. The ATF does not collect those serial numbers and instead requires sellers comply with trace searches.

Information about the National Security Agency’s successful efforts to harvest “meta-data” shows the agency is capable of tapping directly into fiber networks. The majority of NICS data is transmitted in the same way and sometimes over these very same networks. Has the NSA been using similar tactics to develop a list of every law-abiding citizen who has engaged in lawful commerce to acquire a firearm along with their address, the location of the sale, and the type of firearm?

That’s a question the Senators are looking to answer. Additionally, they are seeking public answers to the following questions in order to give the American people the information they need to conduct an informed public debate:

• How long has the NSA used PATRIOT Act authorities to engage in bulk collection of Americans’ records? Was this collection underway when the law was reauthorized in 2006?

• Has the NSA used USA PATRIOT Act authorities to conduct bulk collection of any other types of records pertaining to Americans, beyond phone records?

• Has the NSA collected or made any plans to collect Americans’ cell-site location data in bulk?

• Have there been any violations of the court orders permitting this bulk collection, or of the rules governing access to these records? If so, please describe these violations.

• Please identify any specific examples of instances in which intelligence gained by reviewing phone records obtained through Section 215 bulk collection proved useful in thwarting a particular terrorist plot.

• Please provide specific examples of instances in which useful intelligence was gained by reviewing phone records that could not have been obtained without the bulk collection authority, if such examples exist.

• Please describe the employment status of all persons with conceivable access to this data, including IT professionals, and detail whether they are federal employees, civilian or military, or contractors.

The Senators signing the letter are: Ron Wyden (D-Ore.), Mark Udall (D-Colo.), Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska), Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.), Mark Kirk (R-Ill.), Dick Durbin (D-Ill.), Tom Udall (D-N.M.), Brian Schatz (D-Hawaii), Jon Tester (D-Mont.), Jeanne Shaheen (D-N.H.), Dean Heller (R- Nev.),Mark Begich (D-Alaska), Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), Patty Murray (D-Wash.), Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.), Mazie Hirono (D-Hawaii), Al Franken (D-Minn.), Tom Harkin (D-Iowa), Chris Coons (D-Del.), Maria Cantwell (D-Wash.), Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.), Max Baucus (D-Mont.), Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), Martin Heinrich (D-N.M.), Tammy Baldwin (D-Wisc.) and Mike Lee (R-Utah).