Inside The Federal Bureau Of Way Too Many Guns

By law, the system must remain intricate, thorny, and all but impenetrable.

"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.

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19 Responses:

  1. Jan Kujawa says:

    If your working assumption is that the founding fathers built the second amendment for the purposes of giving citizens recourse against an oppressive government--I'm not going to argue that either way here--any centralized database gives that government a confiscation list and also a list of potential troublemakers.

    • jwz says:

      If that's your working assumption, then I have the right to own a Main Battle Tank and surface-to-air missiles. That line of argument doesn't even pass muster in middle school debate club.

    • George Dorn says:

      That argument also fails on the grounds that an unindexed, unsearchable heap of records works perfectly fine if your goal is indiscriminate confiscation. The 1986 law only prevents enforcement of reasonable limits on gun ownership, like losing the right to own a gun if you commit a violent crime.

      The notion that "potential troublemakers" includes right-leaning gun owners is also laughable; the FBI cares if you attend a Black Lives Matter rally, not if you bought an AR-15.

    • phuzz says:

      They already have a centralised database, it's just on paper.
      So your imaginary totalitarian government that wants the names of every gun owner can just send a bunch of people down to read it all off the paper/microfilm, but here in the real world the database can't be used for something useful.
      Seriously America, it's like you tried to find ways to make it as easy as possible to shoot each other.

      • tfb says:

        And before someone says 'but paper is too hard, they'll never do that': that is how records were kept in East Germany for most of its history. Paper didn't stop them.

        • db48x says:

          True, but a better example is the Wiemar Republic, which instituted gun licensing in about 1920. The records were kept on paper, but in the police station where the gun owner lived. Weeks after the Nazi party came to power in 1933, the captains of each police station had to review the licenses and revoke those belonging to unreliable people, such as Jews. It went rather steadily downhill from there. People who had their licenses revoked were arrested and given over to the SS when they came to the police station to surrender their guns. After all, they didn't have a valid gun license, and the desk sergeant could clearly see that they were holding a gun.

          There's a great book on the subject called "Gun Control in the Third Reich", by Stephen Halbrook.

          The fact that there is a database is a risk, regardless of whether or not it's computerized. I guess it might give you time to move before a new government can use the records against you. If you can see it coming.

    • MattyJ says:

      The government our founding fathers had in mind, BTW, was the British.

      • Nick Lamb says:

        And the British government actually did impose gradually stricter firearm regulations, including like the Australians having a school shooting in which some angry person walked into a school and started murdering little kids and the public outcry resulted in almost nobody having handguns any more (on the mainland). Some pest control or wildlife management people have rifles for work, there are farmers with shotguns, and specialist cops in some places with like AR15s or HKs, but many people won't know anybody who has a gun on the mainland.

        The 4chan gun nut explanation for why the British government would take away everybody's guns for decades and not execute phase 2 oppressive tyranny is that the Illuminati are waiting for America to achieve the same. Apparently only once Americans are disarmed can the oppressive tyranny begin...

        • tfb says:

          It was already pretty hard to get rifles in the UK, very hard to get anything bigger than a .22 I think: much easier to get shotguns. I suspect it has become essentially impossible to get rifles unless it's in your job description as you say (ie I don't think farmers have them any more at all, which they often used to), shotguns are still common amongst farmers & related people but I think they are now much more carefully tracked (tracked at all, I suspect).

          (Source: grew up on a farm in the UK in the 60s & 70s, live in a rural place now.)

      • k3ninho says:

        Not for running militia which keep slaves afraid to leave their unfenced plantations and unlocked residence huts? I'm asking for a friend.

        K3n.

    • Thomas Lord says:

      There's strong textual basis for the idea that the capacity of the people to use force against the federal government was a strong 2nd amendment motivation. Its fashionable today to claim that the 2nd amendment was only about preserving slavery, but the texts directly contradict that.

      Regarding jwz's:

      [if that's so, then] I have the right to own a Main Battle Tank and surface-to-air missiles

      The so-called founders didn't anticipate modern warfare and weaponry, to be sure, but the scheme they had in mind gives some guidance here:

      The US shouldn't have a standing army. Those with religious or ethical objections excepted, all the able-bodied should have ongoing military training. Within our local communities we should all be armed enough (guns will suffice) so that a federal attempt to muster enough militia to repress the people would be vulnerable to a large majority who, one way or another, could keep those soldiers from reporting for the repugnant duty.

      Thus, you don't have a right to own a tank, necessarily. Heavy arms can certainly be kept by the state, safely away somewhere. At the same time, in principle -- a principle that no longer functions in practice -- the federal government shouldn't perpetually have army camps of career soldiers who are ready to roll out the tanks.

      I think the 2nd amendment still does some good in this anti-tyranny roll, albeit a sad, compromised kind of good: Given the fear shown by abusive police departments to enter certain parts of certain cities, I don't think the founders scheme has entirely failed. Repression by the state would be worse, is my guess, if there were fewer guns in society, especially in the most oppressed communities. (This kind of thinking is part of why they don't like me at gatherings of Democrats.)

      • margaret says:

        what part of what city is what police department afraid to enter? be specific and please limit your answer to within the borders of the united states of america in the year 2018.

        • Thomas Lord says:

          Ask your cop friends.

        • Mike Nomad says:

          Having lived in Houston, Texas for almost 40 years, there are parts of the Second and Fifth wards that HPD tends to stay out of until the shooting stops. I don't know if it's out of fear...

      • k3ninho says:

        I said I was asking for a friend above this post, but now you've piqued my curiosity. Which texts, where are your citations, and what interests you enough about this that you say you should be part of a standing militia?

        (Relatedly, how do you feel about taking your turn as a communal firefighter, communal groundskeeper, communal cybersecuritan or communal legislative representative? Your words could swap for any one of these roles. I'm enamoured by 'all it takes for the forces of tyranny to win is for good people to do nothing' so I like your comment -- but also would be surprised if you like that this appears to be some kind, or 'ism', of a commune.)

        K3n.

  2. Ronald Pottol says:

    Odd that they didn't know what to do with wet books and such. Freeze dry them. Freeze them, then put them in a big cold vacuum chamber for a while, until the water it out of them. They don't wrinkle that way, for example. Borrow a suitable chamber from NASA or an NRO contractor, like Lockheed.

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