Jeanne Marie Laskas, writing for GQ in 2016:
“It’s a shoestring budget,” says Charlie, who runs the center. “It’s not 10,000 agents and a big sophisticated place. It’s a bunch of friggin’ boxes. All half-ass records. We have about 50 ATF employees. And all the rest are basically the ladies. The ladies that live in West Virginia — and they got a job. There’s a huge amount of labor being put into looking through microfilm.”
I want to ask about the microfilm — microfilm? — but it’s hard to get a word in. He’s already gone three rounds on the whiteboard, scribbling, erasing, illustrating some of the finer points of gun tracing, of which there are many, in large part due to the limitations imposed upon this place. For example, no computer. The National Tracing Center is not allowed to have centralized computer data.
“That’s the big no-no,” says Charlie.
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.
The legislation that keeps the ATF from computerizing these records is lunacy, based entirely on the fever dream that such a database would lead to mass confiscation.
See also: Guns Found Here, a bracing, compelling 10-minute short from MEL Films that really hammers home how insane the constraints on the ATF National Trace Center are. All they’re trying to do is help law enforcement solve gun crimes and they’re forced to do it in the most inefficient way possible.