ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:
From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.
MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:
And I'm Melissa Block.
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.
I went out to Martinsburg, West Virginia, to the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives' National Tracing Center. Let's say a gun is seized by police at a crime scene. Maybe it's been found in a search of drug dealers or at a murder scene. To trace that gun - to figure out who bought it and where - law enforcement has to contact the one place in the country that can investigate.
DEBBIE: Hi. Good morning, this is Debbie with ATF National Tracing Center. I have gun trace that I need assistance with, please.
BLOCK: Here, in a warren of cubicles, ATF contractors are busy on the phones pursuing trace after trace. On the day we visit, they have 700 calls to make.
DEBBIE: All right, who am I speaking with?
BLOCK: Last year, ATF processed more than 344,000 crime gun trace requests.
Now, 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.
First, local law enforcement sends ATF the particulars on the gun they've seized: the manufacturer, model, caliber, serial number.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: Yes, could I speak to either Lisa or Melissa, please?
BLOCK: ATF then starts running that information back through the distribution chain. First, ATF contacts the gun manufacturer - say, Glock or Smith & Wesson. The manufacturer checks its records and says, OK, I sold that particular firearm to this wholesaler. Then ATF contacts the wholesaler and on down the record chain till they find the retail gun dealer.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #2: And this was purchased on your premises?
BLOCK: It's that gun dealer who should be able to say: Aha, here is who bought that firearm. It's up to the federally licensed gun dealer to keep the record of each gun purchase. It's a form called a 4473 that the buyer and dealer have to fill out before a sale.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: OK. Thank you so much, Lisa. All righty, bye- bye.
BLOCK: Scott Hester leads an ATF team that handles urgent gun traces - gun trafficking, homicide, violent crime.
SCOTT HESTER: I take it personally that these traces come across my desk and I'm doing what I can to help solve a crime.
BLOCK: His cubicle is lined with newspaper headlines about the cases he's proudly handled.
HESTER: The very high profile traces, like Gabby Gifford's, I worked on that case. I worked on a case where four officers in Lakeland, Washington were having coffee one morning and they got killed. Newtown, we got called in on that one.
BLOCK: Now, if they're lucky the trace can be completed really fast.
HESTER: It does not happen very often. But imagine the delight on that cop's face when can put that gun in bad guy's hand in 15 minutes. It makes them very happy.
BLOCK: 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 may be 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.
HESTER: This is today's mail.
BLOCK: Today, it's 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.
(SOUNDBITE OF BOXES)
CHARLES HOUSER: You can see boxes all along this wall and boxes all back there - boxes everywhere.
BLOCK: ATF Special Agent Charles Houser runs the National Tracing Center. Everywhere he takes me, we see carton after carton lining the walls, stacked to the ceiling, all of them holding records of gun sales from businesses that have folded.
HOUSER: On any given day, we will have to hand search these records.
BLOCK: 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.
(SOUNDBITE OF FLIPPING PAGES)
HOUSER: You know, the idea that we have computer database and you just type in a serial number and it pops out some purchaser's name is a myth.
BLOCK: So why don't they have that searchable, central database? Well, the National Rifle Association and the gun lobby have successfully blocked that through Congress, arguing that database of gun transactions would be a dangerous step toward a national gun registry.
(SOUNDBITE OF FLIPPING PAGES)
BLOCK: I watch as tracers comb through page after page of records. They're standing 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: These look like the Dead Sea scrolls to me.
BLOCK: Charles Houser shows me a table filled with battered, burned and waterlogged gun sale records.
HOUSER: These are Hurricane Katrina records we kept.
BLOCK: Oh, really?
HOUSER: Businesses went under water and they went out of business. But they still shipped their records here. And we dried these out in parking lot.
BLOCK: And occasionally, a gun dealer might deliver a not so subtle message with the ledgers, the Acquisition and Disposition books he sends in.
HOUSER: So those not so friendly with the government have maintained their A&D books on paper towel or toilet paper.
BLOCK: You've actually gotten a whole ledger book written on toilet paper?
HOUSER: Yes. As long as you get the records, I mean, I'm OK.
BLOCK: ATF used to put these documents on microfilm. Now they're scanning them.
(SOUNDBITE OF MACHINERY)
HOUSER: We have to have seven scanners running 16 hours a day or we fall behind.
(SOUNDBITE OF MACHINERY)
BLOCK: But even once the pages are scanned, Charles Houser points out they're still not searchable. They're just making a digital image.
HOUSER: The only difference between the digital images and searching the boxes is now somebody can sit at a TV screen. And they will flip through...
BLOCK: Page by page.
HOUSER: ...page by page.
BLOCK: Not searchable.
HOUSER: It's not searchable by anybody's name.
BLOCK: With so much paperwork flooding in, there is a backlog - about 3,000 boxes right now, waiting to be scanned.
HOUSER: When we pass 10,000 boxes here, GSA - who owns the building - warned us that the floor will collapse.
BLOCK: Oh, come on.
HOUSER: No. No.
HOUSER: So what we've had to do is rent shipping containers. And then we put those out in parking lot. And we have to send people out into the shipping containers to search boxes.
BLOCK: Charles 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 I visited, the National Tracing Center completed 1,500 gun traces, with another 5,000 cases still in process.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
SIEGEL: This is NPR News.
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