This is not an exaggeration. Our federal regulators have a site that is designed to handle NFA transactions electronically, and it’s failing miserably and nobody seems to know why it’s barely operational. As of this writing, logging in is simply not possible, and filing ATF Form 3 or Form 4 or checking existing drafts just isn’t happening. This is incredibly frustrating to me and others in the industry and the how and why it’s ruining my business, but let’s preface this article with the fact that we’ve discussed problems with the ATF’s eForms back in August . . .
I’m well aware that being in the NFA business isn’t for the faint of heart. Your retailer should know how to do a Form 4 – and if they don’t, you’re looking at delays in getting your stamp back if they can’t get it right the first time, or give you an idea of what needs to be sent to ATF so they can approve it on the first pass. Thankfully, the internet is becoming our friend in telling people how to get their NFA gear, right? In one merchant of death’s opinion, not so much. Specifically, here’s why ATF’s electronic submission system is driving me insane.
Recently, browsing reddit’s gun forum, a question was asked about NFA purchasing. Someone rather unambiguously answered that that the dealer you use should process your forms electronically, because it will save you months of waiting time. I think this is misguided for a few reasons.
1. Yes, electronic forms are theoretically faster. Here’s why. When you’re at a grocery store with 10 cash registers, eight of which are open and there’s a long line at each, and the store opens up another lane, everyone flocks to that new lane. Pretty soon, that one is just as long as the other eight. You haven’t gained anything if you’re on the back-end of the line but if you’re close enough to take advantage of the new opening, you can theoretically shorten your wait time. The people who benefited from the new eForm system are those who volunteered to be guinea pigs and hit me up for NFA merchandise just after the system came online.
In August when the first batch of electronic forms went in and in October when the first batch of electronic forms came back, nobody believed me when I said that I had gotten Form 4’s back in 60 days. So what did they do after I showed them the proof? They threw money at me and asked me to do everything electronically from then on.
ATF’s system went from taking and approving zero forms, to approving some forms. And now that the internet thinks that you can save months of wait time, they’re telling dealers to do e-forms or not get the sale. This raises a theory of mine: with the sheer volume of people demanding electronic forms (I have no hard data to corroborate this, just industry experience and my gut) I think that the electronic submissions are outpacing the paper submissions since the folks that do electronic submissions tend to do a lot more NFA business than smaller outfits that do it on paper. My guess is that we’ll reach a tipping point and at the rate we’re going, in 3-4 months or so, a paper form will come back before an electronic form due to the sheer quantity of electronic submissions.
Again, this is just a theory… only time will tell to see if this plays out.
2. Another theory of mine is that the ATF’s system is being slogged down by volume. The system that I played with in August didn’t work very well. It didn’t do any better from September to December – it was intolerably slow, but you could occasionally get work done.
Some dealers tell me they have no trouble, where others have encountered plenty of problems as I have. Gut instinct tells me that when ATF’s site takes an eternity building my NFA inventory from their database it’s because I have 300 items in inventory and smaller dealers have three. That’s why I’m having problems and they’re not. I haven’t been able to test this objectively, but colleagues of mine that work for larger firms are NOT using the electronic system as it is too unreliable for their business to depend on. And the ATF has issued a press release indicating they are, in fact, having performance issues.
3. ATF’s electronic system is ruining my business because people simply don’t understand the back-end process and are results-oriented. They hear on the internet that you must go to a dealer that files e-forms and you must not accept a substitute, lest you have to wait longer for your NFA merchandise. I file this under “Things Amazon has done to ruin society.” People simply don’t know how to wait for anything anymore. Patience is a virtue, and it’s simply lost on too many people.
I lost four sales last week because when I was asked to do electronic forms, I offered the following option:
- I can try to do the forms electronically. ATF’s website isn’t working very well. If I can’t get it to work, we’ll go with paper.
- If you want me to try it electronically, I’m going to charge you more money. My price is discounted for me to spend a minimal amount of time on this.
What happened? They looked at me as if I was crazy and took their business elsewhere.
Apparently I’m the only one who realizes that the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again expecting a different result. I spent the last three days of January trying to get a pair of Form 3’s submitted and a single Form 4. I kept submitting it repeatedly and ATF’s website simply did not handle the submission properly. The most valuable commodity I have isn’t plant, property, equipment or capital… it’s time.
When I can do a paper form in four minutes flat, proofread, with serial numbers double checked and mailed to ATF the same day I’m paid, I have no problem working cheap and slinging an SBR at $50 over cost. What are you supposed to charge when your time commitment to getting the transfer sent in will vary from 15 minutes (approximately the amount of time it takes to do a single e-form 4 with a 4MB upload of trust documents and tax payment to the US treasury) to 3.5 hours during which the ATF’s website crashes mid-submission every time or the connection to their server gets lost? And even after you’ve spent 3.5 hours trying to submit the form, you potentially still haven’t finished the job.
People don’t seem to realize that with a paper form, the ATF’s contracted bank cashes the check and handles the paperwork that’s sent to the NFA branch where it is examined and subsequently reviewed for and processed into the NFRTR. This is in stark contrast to an electronic form, where the burden of data entry, payment to the government, document submission, etc. are all shifted to the dealer. More work with the same markup = less profit.
When I say I can do paper forms for a low markup or electronic forms for a high markup to cover the amount of time I have to sink into it, they look at me as if I’m insane. One other dealer went so far as to say that I was gouging customers, because when I said the price of the item was X, I should include as much time as necessary to get the job done and not filing the customer’s forms electronically was a breach of their trust. My response to that is that in life, as in sports, the boos always come from the cheap seats. Protip: Never trust a gun dealer that has a massive amount of free time on their hands.
Until ATF can get their act together, I will continue to lose sales, I will continue to lose profits and I will continue to lose sanity/productivity dealing with customers who feel my time is best spent fighting with ATF’s website so they can theoretically get their gear sooner.
Circumstances like these are what make running a business difficult. I can tolerate the government’s regulatory process. But the fact that a system that was engineered to be more productive is turning into being counterproductive is what really grinds my gears. And customers are taking their business elsewhere because I can’t meet their seemingly simple demands.
UPDATE: A few hours after this post was published, the ATF sent this email blast regarding eForm performance problems.