How we trace guns in crimes

Great story on NPR this afternoon that clearly demonstrates the absolutely absurd hold the gun nuts have on our policy.  Due to their fear of gun registration being just a small step from gun confiscation (and yet giving government the power to levy income taxes has not led to 100% taxes and communism) the law makes it ridiculously difficult and arcane for law enforcement to track down guns used in crimes.  We pay government employees to literally sort through boxes and boxes of paper gun records because heaven forbid the government should actually have a computerized record keeping system for gun sales.  Obviously the second amendment means nothing and government is a tyranny if they have records of who purchased what gun.

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…

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 and 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…

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 line the walls and reach the ceiling. 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.

That means that 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.

This is just nuts!  The technology is simple.  The real chance that the government will use gun tracing to take away the guns of legitimate gun owner is zero.  The chance that a searchable database would lead to putting more bad guys in jail is basically 100%  Now, I always preach to my classes that there’s a reason we don’t let the police do whatever they want and that sometimes it’s even okay to let bad guys get away to protect an important principle like the 4th amendment– the alternative being a police state.  So, I’m not just idly saying this.  But if we just let the police search whatever they want without a warrant its pretty clear that the innocent will seriously suffer and freedom will massively erode.  But simply allowing the government to have a record of gun transactions in no way leads to an implicit reduction for legally appropriate people to own firearms.

About Steve Greene
Professor of Political Science at NC State

4 Responses to How we trace guns in crimes

  1. bobandron says:


    I went to the meeting I had told you about with Randy Voller & Dan Blue III.

    I want to get together with you again, in a few weeks, whenever, and talk to you about an idea I have.

    In the meantime, I have an idea for you that will dovetail nicely with what I want to do.

    Howsabout you starting to include, upon occasion, a “cartoon” of the day, when you find a particularly good editorial with a powerful message?

    I’d love it!

    Bob Andron Andron Architects & Associates Via iPhone (919) 616-0405 <>

  2. pino says:

    But simply allowing the government to have a record of gun transactions in no way leads to an implicit reduction for legally appropriate people to own firearms.

    I am less of a “gun guy” than many on the right. I happen to think that background checks are reasonable. I’m even reasonably willing to register guns. But the thing is, the removal of guns by a state is a common method to restrict further liberties. And I’m unconvinced by the argument that goes like this, “They haven’t done it yet.”

    For examples, look no further than California. There, people who are no longer deemed legally appropriate to own guns are having them confiscated by use of a gun registry.

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