Inside the Federal Bureau Of Way Too Many Guns

Photo from GQ

Photo from GQ

Due to NRA lobbying, there’s a federal law that restricts having a searchable gun owner database. This is just nuts:

There is no national database of guns. We have no centralized record of who owns all the firearms we so vigorously debate, no hard data regarding how many people own them, how many of them are bought or sold, or how many even exist.

What we have instead is Charlie.

“Can I go smoke a cigarette while we discuss it?”

Anytime a cop in any jurisdiction in America wants to connect a gun to its owner, the request for help ends up here, at the National Tracing Center, in a low, flat, boring building that belies its past as an IRS facility, just off state highway 9 in Martinsburg, West Virginia, in the eastern panhandle of the state, a town of some 17,000 people, a Walmart, a JCPenney, and various dollar stores sucking the life out of a quaint redbrick downtown. On any given day, agents here are running about 1,500 traces; they do about 370,000 a year.

“It’s a shoestring budget,” says Charlie, who runs the center. “It’s not 10,000 agents and a big sophisticated place. It’s a bunch of friggin’ boxes. All half-ass records. We have about 50 ATF employees. And all the rest are basically the ladies. The ladies that live in West Virginia—and they got a job. There’s a huge amount of labor being put into looking through microfilm.”

I want to ask about the microfilm—microfilm?—but it’s hard to get a word in. He’s already gone three rounds on the whiteboard, scribbling, erasing, illustrating some of the finer points of gun tracing, of which there are many, in large part due to the limitations imposed upon this place. For example, no computer. The National Tracing Center is not allowed to have centralized computer data.

“That’s the big no-no,” says Charlie.

That’s been a federal law, thanks to the NRA, since 1986: No searchable database of America’s gun owners. So people here have to use paper, sort through enormous stacks of forms and record books that gun stores are required to keep and to eventually turn over to the feds when requested. It’s kind of like a library in the old days—but without the card catalog. They can use pictures of paper, like microfilm (they recently got the go-ahead to convert the microfilm to PDFs), as long as the pictures of paper are not searchable. You have to flip through and read. No searching by gun owner. No searching by name.


  1. you’re insane if you think having a registration of legal gun owners would do anything positive.

    Also, it would be awesome if you’d let us log in with our WP credentials so we could get comment follow ups.

    1. 1. Every time there is a case involving a firearm they need to look up if its legally owned, so they can trace it, this helps in any criminal investigation. The fact that it has to be done by hand slows everything down.
      I live in a city with 472 total shooting victims last month, this number has skyrocketed sense they legalized hand gone ownership and concealed carry. So at this point i want a database and guns laws that basically restrict them to people who have a documented use for them. Self-defense is not a valid use in a civilized country, this is not the wild west there is no reason for 99% of the people who have guns in this country to have them.
      I am tired of having to worry about being shot, the second amendment needs to be repealed, there is no longer any reason for it, a citizen militia is no longer necessary or needed in a world where there are ICBMs, Drones, and Tanks.

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