"I get e-mails even from police saying, 'Can you type in the serial number and tell me who the gun is registered to?' Every week. They think it's like a VIN on a car. Even police. Police from everywhere. 'Hey, can you guys hurry up and type that number in?'" [...]
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.
"You want to see the loading dock?" We head down a corridor lined with boxes. Every corridor in the whole place is lined with boxes, boxes up to the eyeballs. In the loading dock, there's a forklift beeping, bringing in more boxes. [...] Almost 2 million new gun records every month he has to figure out what to do with. Almost 2 million slips of paper that record the sale of a gun -- who bought it and where -- like a glorified receipt. If you take pictures of the gun records, you can save space. [...]
"These were Hurricane Katrina," he says, leaning against a stack. "They were all submerged. They came in wet. And then we dried them in the parking lot. When they got dry enough, the ladies ran them into the imager.
"Do you want to see the imagers? I'll show you. Imaging is like running a copy machine. So, like, if there's staples? So what these ladies along here do, from this wall to this wall, from six in the morning until midnight... staples." [...]
The vast majority of the gun records linking a gun to its owner are kept back at the various licensed dealers, the Walmarts, Bob's Gun Shops, and Guns R Us stores dotting America's landscape.
We have more gun retailers in America than we do supermarkets, more than 55,000 of them. We're talking nearly four times the number of McDonald's. Nobody knows how many guns that equals, but in 2013, U.S. gun manufacturers rolled out 10,844,792 guns, and we imported an additional 5,539,539. The numbers were equally astounding the year before, and the year before that, and the year before that. [...]
Serial numbers, it turns out, are tangled clogs of hell. Half the time what the cop is reading you is the patent number, not the serial number, or it's the ID of the importer, and then you have the "zero versus letter O" problem, the "numeral 1 versus letter l versus letter small-cap I" problem, and then there is the matter of all the guns with duplicate serial numbers [...]
Step Two: Hester calls the manufacturer (if it's a U.S.-made gun) or the importer (for foreign-made guns). He wants to know which wholesaler the gunmaker sold the weapon to. [...]
Step Three: You call the wholesaler and say, "Who did you sell it to?" The wholesaler, who also has to keep such records, goes through the same rigmarole the importer or manufacturer did, and he gives you the name of the gun store that ordered it from him. Let's say it was Walmart.
Step Four: If the Walmart is still in business, you call it. The actual store. Not corporate headquarters, or some warehouse, but the actual Walmart in Omaha or Miami or Wheeling. You call that store and you say, "To whom did you sell this Taurus PT 92 with this particular serial number on it?" By law, every gun dealer in America has to keep a "bound book" or an "orderly arrangement of loose-leaf pages" (some have been known to use toilet paper in protest) to record every firearm's manufacturer or importer, model, serial number, type, caliber or gauge, date received, date of sale. This record corresponds to the store's stack of 4473s, which some clerk has to go dig through in order to read you the information from the form. Or he can fax it. Congratulations. You have found your gun owner. [...]
There is no other place in America where technological advances are against the law. Unless you count the Amish. Even if a gun store that has gone out of business hands over records that it had kept on computer files, Charlie can't use them. He has to have the files printed out, and then the ladies take pictures of them and store them that way. Anything that allows people to search by name is verboten.
By law, the system must remain intricate, thorny, and all but impenetrable.