INSIDE THE ATF: Where All Gun Sale Records Get Scanned

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By Frank Miniter

There is a building, found within a lovely panorama of farm fields and apple orchards just across the Maryland line into West Virginia, where gun stores go after death.

The building is the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives’ (ATF) National Tracing Center, located in Martinsburg, W.Va. Personnel there recently gave me a tour. In room after room of this facility I saw the ATF busily digitizing millions of gun sales records from dead gun stores. These are rooms where technicians spend five days a week, on two shifts, scanning records of gun sales. Once scanned, ATF program manager Neil W. Troppman told me, the originals are destroyed.

Boxes filled with records of gun sales from defunct gun stores seemed to fill every available space in the building. Also present were 13 steel semi-truck-sized containers in back, and more coming soon, housing even more of the records.

This building receives 2 million documents a month—up considerably from just a year ago—and there is no legal criteria for how the records sent to them must be kept. All a gun store has to do is retain a record of the name and contact information of every person who bought a gun with each gun’s model, gauge or caliber, and serial number. A gun store can keep these records in any form they choose. But, if they go out of business, they must send the records, however they are kept, to the ATF.

We stopped in front of a display of damaged records placed in front of office cubicles. “These are partially shredded and those are almost washed out from a flood,” Troppman said, pointing at the records. “Maybe it was on purpose.”

Troppman was clearly unhappy with the lack of control the ATF has with how gun stores keep and retain records.

Tacked above a glass display were a series of poster boards with hand-drawn grids on them. Some gun storeowner kept the gun sale records he or she made on these giant, glossy sheets. It was all neat and tidy, but too big for any scanner.

“I had to photograph these to get them in our database,” said Troppman.A technician took us to a table in a hallway where he had hundreds of paper documents drying. The yellow paper was moldy and damp. Troppman was shaking his head.

Troppman next showed us still more records housed on microfiche, a technology I thought faded away in the 1990s. These records are also being converted into digital documents.

“We’re creating a database we can search by gun store and time period so that if a gun is confiscated at a crime scene we can help the investigating officer determine when it was first sold and who bought the gun,” Troppman said.

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