Opponents of expanding background checks for gun sales often raise the fear that it would allow the government to create a national gun registry — a database of gun transactions. In fact, federal law already bans the creation of such a registry. And the reality of how gun sales records are accessed turns out to be surprisingly low-tech.
The trace begins after police seize a gun at a crime scene and then reach out to the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives National Tracing Center in Martinsburg, W.Va. — the one place in the country that can investigate where the gun came from.
Here, in a warren of cubicles, ATF contractors are busy on the phones pursuing trace after trace. On a recent visit, they had 700 calls to make. Last year, ATF processed more than 344,000 crime gun trace requests.
Many people assume that ATF has a massive database of gun owners at its fingertips and can instantly access that information. The reality is very different. It involves lots of phone calls — and often, manual labor.
Here's how it works.
Local law enforcement sends ATF the particulars on the gun they've seized: the manufacturer, model, caliber, serial number. ATF then starts running that information back through the distribution chain, contacting the gun manufacturer, say, Glock or Smith & Wesson, and the manufacturer checks its records and identifies the wholesaler it sold the firearm to.
Then, ATF contacts the wholesaler, then the agency goes down the record chain until it finds the retail gun dealer. It's that dealer who should be able to say who bought that firearm.
It's up to the federally licensed gun dealer to keep the record of each gun purchase. It's a three-page form called a 4473 that the buyer and dealer have to fill out before a sale.
Scott Hester leads an ATF team that handles urgent gun traces for things like gun trafficking, homicide and violent crime.
"I take it personally that these traces come across my desk, and I'm doing what I can to help solve a crime," Hester says.
His cubicle is lined with newspaper headlines about the cases he's proudly handled.
"The very high-profile traces like Gabby Giffords, I worked on that case," he says. "I worked on a case where four officers ... were having coffee [one morning] and they got killed. Newtown, we got called in on that one."
If they're lucky, the trace can be completed really fast.
"It does not happen very often. But imagine the delight on the cop's face when we can put that gun in that bad guy's hand in 15 minutes," Hester says. "It makes them very happy."
Hester calls that "winning the trace lottery."
About 70 percent of the time, ATF says it can successfully trace a gun back to a buyer. Of course, for local law enforcement, that doesn't necessarily solve things.
That gun could have traded hands many more times after the original sale. It could have been transferred in private sales or maybe stolen. And for ATF, there's a whole other level of complication.
For about a third of the traces, it turns out the gun dealer, the wholesaler or manufacturer has gone out of business.
By law, when they close up shop, they have to ship all their gun purchase documents here to the ATF tracing center in West Virginia.
On a recent visit, the center received a dozen boxes of records from an Alabama gun dealer who's gone out of business. But these gun sale records can come in by the truckload — as many as 3,000 boxes at a time, hundreds of millions of pages in all. Those pages are stored in stacked cartons that the walls and reach the ceiling of the center. Boxes are everywhere. All of these cartons hold records of gun sales from businesses that have folded.
"On any given day, we will have to hand search these records," says ATF Special Agent Charles Houser, who runs the National Tracing Center.
That's right, hand search.
What that means is, if it's a gun maker or seller who's gone out of business, the workers here have to painstakingly leaf through these documents one page at a time looking for a match to the gun they're trying to trace.
"The idea that we have a computer database and you just type in a serial number and it pops out some purchaser's name is a myth," Houser says.
They don't have that searchable, central database because the National Rifle Association and the gun lobby have successfully blocked that through Congress. They argue a database of gun transactions would be a dangerous step toward a national gun registry.
So tracers comb through page after page of records as they stand amid boxes stacked head-high. ATF gets more than one million of these out-of-business records every month. And when they open those boxes of paperwork, who knows what they might find.
Houser points to a table filled with battered, burned and waterlogged gun sale records.
"These look like the Dead Sea Scrolls to me," he says. "These are Hurricane Katrina records we kept. Businesses went underwater and they went out of business. But they still shipped their records here and we dried these out in the parking lot."
And occasionally a gun dealer might deliver a not-so-subtle message with the ledgers — the acquisition and disposition books — he sends in.
"So those not so friendly with the government have maintained their A & D books on paper towel or toilet paper," Houser says. And it turns out, that's fine with him. "As long as you get the records, I'm OK."
ATF used to put these documents on microfilm. Now, the agency scans them.
"We have to have seven scanners running 16 hours a day or we fall behind," Houser says. But even once the pages are scanned, Houser points out, they're still not searchable. They're just making a digital image.
"The only difference between the digital images and searching the boxes is that now somebody can sit at a TV screen and they will flip through page by page. It's not searchable by anybody's name," he says.
With so much paperwork flooding in — there's a backlog — about 3,000 boxes right now are waiting to be scanned.
"When we pass 10,000 boxes here, GSA [the General Services Administration], who owns the building, warned us that the floor will collapse," Houser says. "So what we've had to do is rent shipping containers and then we put those out in the parking lot and we have to send people out into the shipping containers to search boxes."
Houser figures that 90 percent of the time, ATF can complete an urgent trace within 24 hours. For a routine trace, it might take a week.
Houser admits this whole process looks pretty ugly, but he maintains that it is effective.
On the day of NPR's visit, the National Tracing Center completed 1,500 gun traces — with another 5,000 cases still in process.