ATF handcuffed by archaic records system

In 1986, Congress passed a ban on the ATF ever having a so-called federal gun registry or any kind of electronic database of firearms.
Posted at 5:34 PM, Mar 28, 2023

An estimated 98,000 firearms were bought in Florida this February — some of them from Bill Jackson's Shop for Adventure in Pinellas Park.

By U.S. law, co-owner Doug Jackson has to keep a transaction record called a 4473, he uses this form to initiate a background check.

"We have to basically send copies of the 4473. But we always maintain the original copies on site," Jackson said. "The record keeping is basically, simple, but forever. We are required by law to maintain everything on site for a minimum of 20 years."

Jackson's store is classified as a Federal Firearms Licensee, or FFL. There are over 50,000 such FFL retailers in the U.S. And by law, they must keep sales records on hand and available to the ATF for criminal investigations.

If the store goes out of business, the records end up in West Virginia.

"It's this cavernous building full of boxes, upon boxes, of boxes of pieces of paper," recently retired ATF Deputy Assistant Director Pete Forcelli said. "It's an archaic system. It's ineffective. It could be better. And like I said, there are victims of crimes out there who deserve better. They deserve that law enforcement should be able to get that information in a more timely manner

SCRIPPS NEWS' JOHN MONE: We walked through the facility and to me, at best, it seemed byzantine. At worst, woefully inefficient.

PETE FORCELLI: I don't know that it's inefficient because of the people that are there. It's inefficient because of the policies that are in place, because of laws that are written that handcuff the ATF.

Critics say at the root of this archaic record keeping are fears of a federal national registry of firearms — a registry that some feel could be searched to confiscate legally obtained weapons from law-abiding owners.

"There's a lot of, I'll call it conspiracy theories out there. They state that some of the countries that have had gun registration and gun taking back, are countries that governments taken over," Jackson said.

Federal law prohibits any such registry.

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"No, there's absolutely no national registry. There's not a database of gun ownership in the United States there. There's simply no such thing," ATF Gun Trace Center Program Director Neil Troppman said.

In 1986, Congress passed a ban on the ATF ever having a so-called federal gun registry or any kind of electronic database of firearms.

What does exist is piles of paper — sheafs of Form 4473.

The Firearms Transaction Record contains the buyer's address, government id number, the proof of background check and statement they're eligible to buy weapons under federal law. Even if paper is scanned, it's dumbed down.

"But we are scanning those records into a system that is completely non searchable," Troppman said. "It's, essentially, static images of pieces of paper as opposed to physical pieces of paper in a filing cabinet."

And that purposefully antiquated archive is a crucial part of the ATF's system for tracing hundreds of thousands of guns each year.

"With that firearm description, what we do here, what we manually complete, is piecing together the chain of distribution of the firearm," Troppman explained.

A gun trace helps determine who the last person or entity who legally purchased a firearm is. It starts with finding the serial number and the gun maker. Then investigators have to contact the importer or distributor, then wholesaler and then retailer. It ends up being a paper chase and many phone calls.

The trace could also lead to the stacks of paper from defunct gun dealers housed with the ATF. Typical turn around for a records check is eight days.

And in addition to the mountain of paperwork you just saw, there's 50,000 square feet of office space, divided into two floors, of boxes of firearms transaction records. And even if the agency stopped accepting from gun dealers that have gone out of business, there would be 16 to 18 months of backlog to process.

Forcelli says the present system slows down investigations into crimes like homicides and aggravated assaults.

"The downside of that, is obviously, if someone is harmed with one of those weapons, it's actually affecting ATF and that local police department's ability to solve that crime, because that's very important information to find out 'where did that firearm come from and how did it get into the hands of the shooter,'" he said.

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In Congress there are some lawmakers who think the ATF should modernize.

Congressman Bill Pascrell sponsored a bill that would allow the agency to electronically search data it already has, which it can't currently legally do, and accept digitalized record from defunct dealer.

"We go into the records electronically much quicker — seconds, minutes compared to days and months," he said. "And that's why it's important. I think it would do more to help those who are for some kind of gun control an end to gun violence."

The New Jersey Democrat tells Scripps News his bill would speed up investigations and produce leads within 48 hours, as well as undo the restrictions he says were engineered by the gun lobby through the "Firearm Owners Protection Act" that was passed in the mid-80s.

"The NRA had an immeasurable control over legislation dealing with guns that protected the gun owners, and they protected those people who sold the guns, who manufacture the guns," Pascrell said. "Talk about a slippery slope. I think that was the biggest slippery slope."

But in a polarized Congress, where guns are a lightning rod for conservatives, any change to ATF record keeping seems like an overreach for Republicans.

"I am an absolutist on the Second Amendment," Maryland Rep. Andy Harris said. "Now, let's dissect it exactly what records they're keeping. They're keeping records from federally licensed firearm dealers. Okay, FFL people who hold that license. That's not where the criminals are getting their guns."

Harris told Scripps News he has a genuine fear that a federal gun registry would result if the ATF updated its record keeping.

"Governments leading up to that like to begin keeping records of who has firearms so that when confiscation comes, it's much easier to do. And this is not something made up," Harris continued.

The GOP has re-introduced bills to further limit the agency's powers. So what will likely hold is the status quo, which is a mountain of boxes in mountain high West Virginia.