If a quill pen was good enough for Thomas Jefferson, it ought to be good enough for 300 million people in a 21st century nation

Here’s another holdover from the founding fathers: not only do we have a constitutional amendment based on 18th century concepts of firearms, but we’re only allowed to keep track of them with record-keeping practically straight out of colonial America. Our country’s gun registry is a lot of pieces of paper in cardboard boxes, and thanks to the gun lobby, we aren’t allowed to computerize the information.

“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.

Thanks, NRA!


  1. slithey tove (twas brillig (stevem)) says

    2nd hand, with no cites, sorry, but here goes.
    some states have “default” licensing limits, where the search of the records has a deadline [pun] of a few days. After the deadline, if nothing is returned from the search, then license is summarily granted. Regardless of what is eventually found in the records (all moot after deadline passes).

    I assume that’s the reason for the massive paper-only database. To get away with looking responsible while being totally not.
    Records are being kept, but buried in massive quantity.

    NRA also lobbied to keep CDC from investigating (keeping statistics) the health risk of firearms.
    And disallows guns to be made safer with owner id interlocks (like your iPhone has with a simple thumb print sensor).
    NRA: National Resource of Assholery

  2. cartomancer says

    Perhaps there is a sneaky way to get this one reformed – point out to the gun manufacturers how much more business they would make if they had a searchable database of gun nuts they could use for targeted advertising…

  3. slithey tove (twas brillig (stevem)) says

    re 2:
    you know, of course, it is all fearmongering paranoia: that a searchable database will lead to the Feds swooping in to confiscate at any moment. (according the National Resource Assholes)

  4. congenital cynic says

    Mind-blowingly crazy. The gun fetishists really do run the country. That’s just insane.

  5. Rich Woods says

    And 16,384,331 guns in one year. Do people eat them?

    Only when they’re not allowed to be given food stamps.

  6. says

    This is a joke, right? I mean, no nation in the world would have such totaly asinine and useless laws, right? Right?
    I do not want to live on this planet anymore.

  7. wzrd1 says

    @PZ, did you *just* learn this?
    This, the lobbying you mentioned and assorted other lobbying by the NRA is precisely why I refuse to participate in any NRA affiliated event.

    Hell, I’d be happier than anything to even have a voluntary database and send every model and serial number of human killing designed and animal killing designed device that I own in.
    Nope, that’s illegal, thanks to the NRA. It’s even illegal for the CDC to track deaths by firearms. Any other way of dying is tracked, save that. Still, they’ve not broken the FBI’s tracking – yet.
    Oddly, ever word that we type online can be tracked, but not a firearm sold online.
    So, straw purchasers go buy firearms by the dozen and sell them on the streets, for a generous profit, I’m told by LEO’s that I know.
    Of course, bring that up to an NRA member, he’ll reliably go on about Obama and “Fast and Furious”, to receive a response from me that starts with Fu and crescendos at levels leaving the poor SOB thinking that Thor himself just set Mjolnir onto him.*

    *While usually very soft spoken in real life, I do have the ability to fill an amphitheater with high decibel antics. Those are reserved for addressing large groups of people without amplification, such as assembled troops and for the unfortunate village idiot, who has massively offended general common sense and any sense of intellect.

  8. erichoug says

    OK, someone correct me if I’m wrong here but I think that legislation was passed thanks to the movie “Red Dawn”. One of the early invasion scenes shows the Cuban and Russian officer talking about getting the names and addresses of Gun owners so they could round them up. So, of course when the NRA proposed to pass that law, every red blooded American 8th grader was all for it to protect us from the commies.

    Seriously, that is how dumb it is. It isn’t even good for gun owners. If your gun is stolen and then later recovered, there is a fair change that you will never know about it or have it returned.

    So, the only people this law is good for is the paranoid loonies, criminals and politicians.

  9. says

    Meanwhile, NSA records every txt and cell phone call, UPS and USPS record and provide shipping records (why do you THINK they switched to electronic tracking?) dumbasses don’t realize that the government has other ways of knowing who bought what, when. Honestly, supporting the NRA is an IQ test.

  10. says

    Another example of how the whole “well regulated militia” part of the Second Amendment is apparently meaningless. How are the authorities supposed to regulate the militia properly if they’re missing important logistics data, like where the militia’s firearms are located, and how many are in each location?

  11. says

    It’s called “google”

    All the data is there. Link urls to credit card purchases, shipping tracking numbers and package weight, how much it was insured for and whether signature was required. Throw in a network analysis of who gets emails fron gunbroker.com etc and who gets ORM-D packages and the NRA doesn’t realize it but the police state’s view exceeds their worst nightmare.

    I wish it would help but it looks like they don’t want to reveal operational secrets. Sonthe FBI is left trolling the extreme web trying to provoke useful idiots into helping them hit their quota.

  12. unclefrogy says

    I do not know how those people who support the very close surveillance of the “suspected islamist terrorists” wanting to know when and where they might do anything like buying guns and amo can at the same time support every law the cripples the government from knowing anything about firearm ownership. They do not seem to understand that when you have ideas and policies that both support the extension of government power (to surveil) and attempt to restrict government power that you get most of the time government power extended in ways you did not want and not in ways you did.

    uncle frogy

  13. wzrd1 says

    @erichoug, I happen to own multiple firearms, some inherited and of historic value (Saturday night specials) and hunting or military competition value, as I do compete on occasion against the military.
    I also track a lot of the paranoia that seriously worries me, along with spur triggers of more paranoia.
    Currently, this is circulating:
    Paranoia over a 12.5% nitrogen content on smokeless powder, which would make it essentially, artillery grade.
    A few efforts to deflect it are drowned out by paranoid individuals, making me, yet again, the spectacular failure of our embarrassment of a national mental health care system.
    As the hit counts collect, my embarrassment increases, as well as my horror.
    These people collect ammunition like others collect stamps of pennies.
    Full disclosure, I am a competition shooter against military specific firearms. I’m also an occasional hunter (previously, avid).
    Frankly, those SOB’s scare the hell out of me.
    They both panic buy upon command and stock up on all manner of nonsense, including fake “cures” to disease.
    Worse, as our mental health care system further breaks down, more and more pour into their community.

    If anyone has a good idea, I’m totally chock full of ears. My real and failing ones aren’t required here. :)

  14. wzrd1 says

    @Marcus Ranum, OK, easy cure that the paranoid already figured out.
    Don’t buy from gunbroker.dom, never did myself at all, ever.
    I use smaller shops, who very well might have that for which I seek.
    Currently, Mk318, mod 0 rounds. Precisely one box, might be pressured to purchase two.
    It’d just complete a set and it’s match grade, the most important qualification for a round for me.
    I can acquire between 1000 and 5000 rounds of the damned things, I want 20 frigging rounds.
    Panic buying is at full frenzy, “Obama gun grab” bullshit.
    Hell, just today, a new “gun grab” BS campaign just hit, nitrocellulose beyond 12.5% nitrogen is controlled (seriously, that’s damned near artillery in strength, as you need nitroglycerin in serious quantities to raise it that high), ignored by the community.
    Welcome the newest panic buy!
    Not that I could still get a damned box of one specific round, a mere 20 rounds and I might have to defend my home against velociraptors or something!
    Or at least, heat a damned target at 200 meters, 300 meters and 100 meters, requiring calipers to determine who scored well enough to win a cash prize.
    Hope that the assholes choke on their excess tonnage of ammunition!

  15. drst says

    *puts on librarian hat* For the record, microfilm is the most stable format to store records in after paper. With minimal conservation it remains usable for decades, unlike many digital file formats. *takes off librarian hat*

  16. consciousness razor says


    If anyone has a good idea, I’m totally chock full of ears.

    Well, listen, our mental health care system isn’t the subject here. And you couldn’t diagnose anyone from a blog comment even if it were.

    I don’t think people need to own guns. But as long as they do, then of course we need an effective way to keep track of them. I have no idea what #17 has to do with that. What else do you need to hear?


    *puts on librarian hat* For the record, microfilm is the most stable format to store records in after paper. With minimal conservation it remains usable for decades, unlike many digital file formats. *takes off librarian hat*

    That may be, but it’s hardly ideal for an entire national system which needs to access and distribute the data quickly and reliably. And it’s not as if you can’t also make backup files (and paper/microfilm hard copies), as well as convert to different formats when new technologies require it.

  17. wzrd1 says

    @unclefrogy, my problem is, an enumerated right suddenly wants to become a privilege and henceforth, weaken *all* rights.
    Removing a right requires a court of law, given highly specific conditions and a high burden of proof. A privilege requires administrative action, such as a driver’s license to someone suddenly become blind.
    Now, which other rights do you want administratively revoked? All are present now, once rights and privileges are equal. Inalienable becomes, yeah, whatever.
    The day that occurs, I no longer want to be alive at all.

  18. unclefrogy says

    the operative phrase being ( unlike many digital file formats )
    if the data is in a very simple format and copied regularly to new storage media as long as the technology lasts it should be accessible but maybe not as long as stone or fired clay.
    to be quickly searched it still needs to be digitized and accessible to computers
    uncle frogy

  19. unclefrogy says

    me either but that is the direction we are heading.
    regardless of the protestations to the contrary everything about you or I is accessible in the name of security to some governmental agency right now. the thing that is “saving” us for now is the inability of governmental agencies for effectively communicating and coordinating with each other now.They all are more interested in turf than effectiveness. it is not new and might be a reflection of the political party system we currently enjoy.
    uncle frogy

  20. says

    they recently got the go-ahead to convert the microfilm to PDFs), as long as the pictures of paper are not searchable.

    If all the records are on PDFs, OCR reading is possible. FOIA requests and a Gutenberg-like collaborative project by the public could solve the problem. (This would require there be government employees with the education and decency to recognize and understand the problem, and willing to fulfill FOIA requests completely and properly.) Similar projects exist, doing things the US government fails and refuses to do.

    Charly (#9) –

    This is a joke, right? I mean, no nation in the world would have such totaly asinine and useless laws, right? Right?
    I do not want to live on this planet anymore.

    I would never set foot in the US for those and certain other reasons, any more than I would set foot in North Korea. And no, that’s not hyperbole.

  21. Menyambal says

    Wzrd1, your concern for an enumerated right is the NRA’s stand exactly. But the Second Amendment isn’t about gun ownership. Pretending it is is very damaging, but they don’t care.

    I don’t know if the NRA sells its mailing list, but I know from experience that it buys other mailing lists. The NRA is practically a collector of data about gun owners. I doubt that information is properly protected.

  22. jrkrideau says

    @ 19 drst

    For the record, microfilm is the most stable format to store records in after paper.

    And paper is pretty ephemeral. Vellum is long term. The copy of Magna Carta in Salisbury Cathedral looks fine after a mere 860 or so years.

    I heard a complaint the other day that the UK House of Commons and the Lords may be abandoning vellum for some kind of paper. The person complaining, an MP, was worried that paper would not last even 500 years without careful curating and thus endangering the records of Parliament. She was quite worried.

    Go sheep!

  23. slithey tove (twas brillig (stevem)) says

    re 27:
    I disagree on your characterization of NRA.
    They don’t care about gun ownership, they only care about gun sales. Ensuring the market is open to an unrestricted customer base. Opposing requirement of safety features that would reduce the profit margin on each product.
    NRA is purely a sales lobby that has completely diverged from its origin as a safety training organization.

  24. gijoel says

    Why are we surprised? They won’t deny guns to people on no fly lists.

    *At least that’s the latest I’ve heard on that.

  25. wzrd1 says

    @gijoel #30, we also don’t summarily execute people on no fly lists. Enumerated rights can only be terminated by the orders of a court of law, under color of codified law, not based upon mere suspicion.*
    Or should we detain people without charge next, indefinitely, as the reason we claim to detain them is classified?

    *Another reason is, we’re letting those we suspect know that we suspect them. That could spur a premature attack or simply induce them to cover their tracks better, if they actually are guilty of plotting something.

    @slithey tove, #29, the NRA was taken over shortly after the Gun Control Act of 1968 was enacted, which the NRA supported. By 1970, it was industry owned and operated, growing zanier by the decade. Before 1970, it was actually a sportsman’s organization, now, it’s sell guns central, plus ammo sales.
    I monitor a number of firearms related blogs and lists, largely to see how far off of the wire they’re going. Just today, a change suggested by the BATFE on vendor storage rules of wetted smokeless powder with a nitrogen content of 12.6% or greater is reclassified as an explosive.
    Of course, the articles then claim that’s bad for those who want ammunition.
    Here, from Wikipedia:
    Nitrocellulose is soluble in a mixture of alcohol and ether until nitrogen concentration exceeds 12%. Soluble nitrocellulose, or a solution thereof, is sometimes called collodion.
    Guncotton containing more than 13% nitrogen (sometimes called insoluble nitrocellulose) was prepared by prolonged exposure to hot, concentrated acids for limited use as a blasting explosive or for warheads of underwater weapons such as naval mines and torpedoes.

    Yep, it was and remains for specific bombs, not to launch lead anywhere – it’d blow a firearm apart.
    That’s not how the paranoia is being sowed though.

  26. Trickster Goddess says

    If the second amendment guarantees a right to own guns, then it also constitutionally requires gun ownership to be “well regulated”.

  27. Saad says

    drst, #19

    *puts on librarian hat* For the record, microfilm is the most stable format to store records in after paper. With minimal conservation it remains usable for decades, unlike many digital file formats. *takes off librarian hat*

    I read that as “libertarian hat” and spent a solid 60 seconds trying to understand your angle. :(