Thanks to a Freedom of Information Act request, we now have a look into the ATF’s own employees’ opinions on whether the National Firearms Registration and Transfer Records database — the repository for all the transfer records for silencers and machine guns — is actually accurate.

Most firearms in the United States aren’t registered (or they’re not supposed to be). The buyer heads to a gun store, fills out some paperwork (which never leaves the store) and that’s the end of the paper trail. But that’s not the case with items regulated under the National Firearms Act.

Since 1934 every machine gun, silencer, short barreled rifle, and “destructive device” has been required to be registered with the federal government. That registry (the National Firearms Registration and Transfer Records or NFRTR) became even more important when, in 1986, the registry was closed for machine guns — guns with giggle switches that were listed before the cutoff date were legal. Nothing after that could be registered, an artificial limit that’s made a roughly a $20,000 difference in gun values.

Over the years, owners of these pre-1986 firearms have noticed during regular inspections that ATF employees often have incomplete or missing records about the inventory they are supposed to be examining. We’d been able to cobble together some anecdotal evidence about the unreliability of the ATF’s system, but now we have data straight from the horse’s mouth — a survey that reveals ATF employees’ lack of confidence in NFRTR accuracy.

Government employees — even those who work at the ATF — are human. Which means they make mistakes. Discrepancies will occur between the NFRTR and the items owned in the real world by firearms owners. One question on the internal survey asked how many these discrepancies are due to an error in the NFRTR rather than a mistake on the part of the firearm owner.

Out of 299 responses:

Always – 30
Most – 103
Sometimes – 99

So 78% of ATF employees surveyed blame NFRTR discrepancies on the ATF.

When asked how the inaccuracy of the NFRTR impacts their ability to do their job, one ATF agent answered:

Errors and discrepancies make ATF, as a whole, look inept. These are extremely important records and our own NFA Branch can’t even get it right. It takes extra hour(s) to rectify these problems, and sometimes we find out 1-2 years down the road on the next inspection that the corrections we forwarded to the NFA Branch aren’t even taken care of by the next inspection.

In short, the ATF’s records are incorrect and even when the agency gets the right information from the field, they don’t bother to update their broken database.

There’s no doubt that the NFRTR has exploded in size in recent years with increased affordability and popularity of silencers. With the Hearing Protection Act provisions up for discussion and a provision requiring silencer records to be removed from the NFRTR, it’s possible that a reduction in the size of the database will allow the ATF to clean up their act.

Or we could take Robert’s preferred approach and scrap the National Firearms Act altogether, which would fix the situation once and for all.

25 Responses to ATF: NFA Records Are Unreliable, Often Missing

  1. I’d have said pounce on the NFA now and get everyone to call their official now that I’ve got a congressman and senator officially considering repeal, but I’m sure congress’s focus all next week will be on the Virginia thing.

  2. I have personally witnessed the ATF shipping an approval to the wrong person, seen a denial for an item that was previous approved, an approval for an item that was previously denied, and numerous items that the ATF claimed was not in their system at all even after they sent an email confirmation for E-File and after a Form 4 check was cashed. For purely law enforcement purposes, the registry has very little, if any, real value.

  3. Revive Holis v. Holder. It was the case that challenged the machine gun ban, and latter the NFA as a whole. We lost. But new information like this demands that the NFA be challenged again!

    • Yes. And urge current AG to revise the previous ruling concerning gun trusts. That would open a registry at least for them.

  4. Not surprised. If you have ever had USPS show item delivered but no where to be found or delivered to East when you live on West.

    You already know government workers are not perfect. Some pretty good, others not so much

  5. “Most firearms in the United States aren’t registered (or they’re not supposed to be). The buyer heads to a gun store, fills out some paperwork (which never leaves the store) and that’s the end of the paper trail.”

    That part about paperwork never leaving the store is incorrect.

    Once the store is closed (goes out of business), or if another owner buys the store with the intent of using their own FFL, then all the old firearm sale records (4473s) are gathered-up and sent to BATFE for “storage”. I’ve heard the stored records are slowly being digitized/scanned so they can be searched electronically.

    Records (4473s) can also be copied as part of BATFE compliance inspections (and often are). So, saying each individual original record “never leaves the store” may be technically correct while the store is still in operation, but a copy of any record CAN leave the store, so even that is rather misleading.

    And all that is before we get to the states and localities that require police to be notified of any sale (where the info is no-doubt entered into a searchable database)…

  6. I choose to believe that these “problems” are not accidental. Just because you work for ATF does not mean that you don’t understand the records are unconstitutional, making repeated “errors” every day to decrease the usability of the records seems like a wonderful way to spend your day in the service of your country.

  7. Oh what a surprise … a government bureaucracy staffed by unaccountable employees that aren’t subject to “normal” disciplinary actions populating a database, and the database isn’t reliable.

    It would be a miracle, and a major miracle at that, if it WAS reliable.

  8. I think it’s the time to repeal the Hughes Amendment. Contact your representatives and senators to attach an amendment to a bill – for example, the SHARE Act. Now our chances are better than ever before.

    If you don’t believe me, look at this letter from Paul Ryan which was written in 2005:
    (you can read it here: ar15 .com/forums/t_1_5/401379_-ARCHIVED-THREAD—-Letter-to-repeal-922–o–the-machine-gun-ban.html&page=2 )

    November 2, 2005

    Dear Mark:

    Thank you for contacting me regarding your support for repealing the ban on machine guns. I appreciate your taking the time to let me know your views on this important issue.

    You raised some interesting and insightful points regarding the low rate of violent crimes using a machine gun. Your thoughts and recommendations will be especially helpful as I work with my colleagues on the important issues facing the 109th Congress. In the meantime, if you wish to share additional information with me concerning this issue, please feel free to contact me by calling, emailing, writing, or faxing me.

    Again, thank you for contacting me. If I can be of further assistance to you regarding this or any other matter, please do not hesitate to contact me. I am always happy to respond and be of service to you.
    Sincerely,

    Paul Ryan
    Serving Wisconsin’s 1st District

  9. It could be argued that to the ATF this is not a problem but a potential future opportunity. If they need another grandstand operation they have a lot of targets for alleged breaches of the NFA act.

  10. I don’t know much about the process, but the whole efile process is a little interesting. You can delete stamps in there if I am remembering correctly. It has been a while since I used it because I said screw it after the trust changes. If you can delete it on your end then I’d really hope it stays somewhere on their end. Then again it is the government and they can’t ever do anything as efficiently or as consistently as the free market unless that something is wasting money and time.

    I wouldn’t be surprised if all those 4473s they made copies of are being well looked after. Now the information they are supposed to keep… Probably not ao much.

  11. This doesn’t sound like the ATF’s problem. It sounds like the problem is up to the gunowners to prove they properly registered their NFA items and the burden of proof is on gun-owners.
    This is why anyone would be crazy to buy a silencer because it is a matter of time when they will be in the crosshairs of the ATF.
    BTW, after the D.C. shooting, say goodbye to any chances of Hearing Protection Act

  12. How big are the mistakes? Maybe I registered and built a select fire AR lower before 1986 and the ATF lost the records.

  13. The depth of ATF’s NFA incompetence must be enough onus to scrap the whole dam thing. Why not get the people on the hill to do what they can NOW to stop this miscarriage of law from continuing and let’s start the process of repealing it. And, Hughes, and 86’s crahp, and well heck let’s just throw the kitchen sink in there.

    Shove it down their throats, the way the anti’s do to us.

  14. Another reason why gun registration databases are a really bad idea. People will get screwed over for administrative issues.

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