Ask the FFL: What Does This Letter From ATF Mean?

[ED: This post is the second in a new series. If you have a question for an experienced federal firearms licensee, send it to [email protected] with ‘Ask the FFL’ in the subject field.]

Here’s an interesting question that came in from a reader. The reader said their local firearm dealer had gotten an error letter attached to a semi-recent (mid 2017) submission of an NFA Form 4 and they wanted some background on what causes correspondence like this from ATF like this. I’ve got some good news and bad news.

The good news is, at least you know ATF got your paperwork! And they’re actually looking at it! I’ve had folks send in Form 4’s with money orders or cashiers checks made out to the ATF and the forms disappear into another dimension. They had no idea the ATF didn’t get their paperwork until months had elapsed and then they had to file paperwork with their financial institution to deal with the lost/missing money order or cashiers check.

Rule number one with dealing with ATF: If they didn’t take your money, they didn’t get your paperwork.

Back in the old days before ATF accepted credit cards for tax stamp payments, people would send in paperwork with cashiers checks all the time and it seemed like I was the only one who was willing to say No…don’t do that! The reason being that if you send them a personal check, you watch your online banking and you can see the check clear. You don’t get that kind of confirmation with a cashier’s check or money order.

Now that ATF takes credit cards, you can very easily check your credit card statement and see what posted.

Rule number two with dealing with ATF: Measure twice, cut once.

If they don’t get what they need – you pay for the delay.

I’ve talked extensively about getting things right the first time, and although the Form 4 isn’t exactly rocket surgery – it isn’t something that an inexperienced gun owner — or gun dealer, for that matter — should take lightly. There’s an 8 to 10 month gap between submission and approval, and it’s critical that the little things get done correctly if you don’t want the process to drag out even longer.

The most common reason we dealers get a nice letter from ATF with a control number and some paperwork copies attached is: INSUFFICIENT DOCUMENTS.

That means you forgot to sign something with your submission, forgot to include a photo, fingerprint card, or even correct information to charge your credit card.

I had one gentleman earlier this year who had sent in his Form 4’s for a new SBR. Some time after he mailed the forms, but before ATF got a chance to get the payment processed, he lost his wallet and cancelled all his credit cards. When the ATF went to process the payment, it didn’t go through and all his paperwork came back marked UNABLE TO PROCESS.

Typically, we see people who missed a scan on trust documents or something easily overlooked and ATF is requesting the missing item so they can give a complete document review to the submission and put a stamp on it if everything is in order. Your stamp is basically on hold until ATF gets the requested documents, so if you want your forms processed in the shortest amount of time possible, send them everything they require to begin with. That way your dealer won’t be giving you a call saying, “We got an error letter on your stuff and you need to send them [insert missing item here]”.

A less common error we get is general strangeness/absentmindedness that happens when folks are between addresses. Their fingerprint cards list location A, their responsible party questionnaire has location B…or even C. Or some have multiple residences across a few states — a first world problem — and they listed the wrong one on their paperwork.

The moral of the story is that just before you shove everything into an envelope with postage bound for a PO Box in Atlanta, take your time and double-check your work. It could save you a few weeks of extra processing and get your new toy in your hands a bit sooner.

Rule number three with dealing with ATF: Some folks are immune to good advice.

A few years ago I was at SHOT Show with a bunch of dealers/manufacturers reps and we were all trading war stories over dinner and drinks. One thing that stuck with me was a story from a rep that had a house fire. He had his guns locked up in a fire-rated safe and a few were in the back of his truck for his sales trip. His original Form 4’s were lost in the fire, and when he called ATF to get replacement copies…he learned a few things.

The first thing he discovered was that ATF’s records aren’t as comprehensive as we think they are. The ATF couldn’t locate any of his information in their records. Now, if you own a whole bunch of items that require a tax stamp and you don’t have paperwork on them and ATF says, “You don’t legally own that item,” the ATF doesn’t have a problem, you do.

Every once in a while in life, we have times where we have to rely on someone with more wisdom and experience to get ourselves out of a jam and save us…and we pray to all that is holy that we never ever repeat that mistake ever again if we’re able to get out of it. It just so happens, that the dealer from which he bought all of his guns — the gun owner kept 100% of his business confined to one store, and they never closed/changed hands/etc. over the years – made a photocopy of every tax-stamped transaction that they kept with the 4473.

Was that required by federal law? No.

Did that save our friend’s hide? Yes.

After getting a copy of a copy, he sent some correspondence to the ATF telling them about his house fire and his destroyed records. Upon reviewing the documents and the provenance, they issued a certified statement of registration for each item.

This wasn’t immediately known to any of us, but in the case of the loss of an original tax stamp, the ATF won’t issue a new stamp, but they will put on letterhead that you are the registered owner of such-and-such device, having such-and-such characteristics, etc. if you find yourself in a similar situation.

Since then, our friend made diligent photocopies of all his Form 4’s and Form 1’s, and stuck images of them in his Google drive account. In this day and age, it’s easier than ever to digitally store information. Google Drive is a tool, let the tool do the work.

As I wrote earlier, having a plan for your firearms isn’t a bad idea if you die, but having a plan for your firearms if you’re still alive is a good idea too We have the technology and it seems silly not to take advantage of it. You could even set up shared permissions so that loved ones can track what’s going on as well as other options.

Now for the photo of the letter our reader sent in above. That’s an interesting one. I hadn’t heard of the ATF requesting proof of ownership before so I asked a few more questions and I was more than a little horrified to hear what was going on.

I don’t believe this to be a regular course of trade for the industry, but this particular dealer, who shall not be named, offered the customer an NFA jump-start/fast track/marketing gimmick on their forms. For an extra $100 cash, the dealer would “expedite” the ATF paperwork and get the Form 4 back quicker. Allegedly.

Was he sending donuts and coffee to the NFA office in West Virginia? Shoving money (Bitcoin?) into a public servant’s digital wallet? The questions abounded, and after talking to a few other guys in the industry, we have a few working theories as to what had happened here.

I’m guessing that the dealer ordered some merchandise from a vendor on behalf of this customer. They did up the Form 4’s and sent them in…without physically having the item, seeing the item or even having the item approved to transfer to them from the vendor. By the time ATF got to reviewing the paperwork, it didn’t exist in their inventory, hence the request to show that they actually had the item.

Not only is this a really bad way to do business, it’s a really easy way to get a phone call from ATF where they very professionally ask you, WTF?

I have heard of some general strangeness in this business before, but nothing of this severity.

More to the point, if the dealer is signing off on requesting a transfer for an item they don’t actually have, when the ATF rejects that set of forms and you have to submit them again when they do get the merchandise, that’s another set of forms for you to fill out with fingerprint cards, passport photos, and CLEO notification. In addition to the dealer pocketing an extra $100, you’ve now got to do the work of complying with ATF again.

Does that sound like progress? Objectively, this makes negative sense.

A little bit later, I found out from one of my distributor reps that certain manufacturers and vendors won’t release serial numbers/manufacturer data on invoices anymore because dealers would use that information for said “jump-start/fast track” buffoonery, sending in forms to transfer stuff they hadn’t received yet. Who knew this was a problem?

I’m not one of those by-the-book 100% of the time types, but I’m by-the-book enough to know that if you’re going to sign your name to a document where the DOJ has the authority to punish you, that’s a pretty bad position to be in.

In conclusion, an error letter from the ATF isn’t the end of the world. Most of the time it’s because there’s something simple like a typo or something silly that’s correctable on your paperwork. Other times, it’s because dealers who have less than stellar ideas put them to the test with customers’ paperwork and take money they’re not entitled to…and the customer winds up getting the short end of the stick.

One of our greatest leaders, Ronald Reagan famously said that it’s fine to trust but we should also verify. When you’ve got an 8 to 10-month wait ahead of you in an industry that’s known to have some folks with less-than-bright ideas and no way to get your property if things go sideways, there needs to be a little less trust and a lot more verify.

 

Hank is a federal firearms licensee with twelve years of experience in the business. He’s a former first responder and is dedicated to bucking the trend of poor customer service in the business and making the gun world a better place. 

comments

  1. avatar GS650G says:

    This is the level of registration and control democrats want to see in place for every gun on private hands in this country.

    1. avatar Leigh says:

      Dems/libs would like to see this as the BEST case scenario. Their goal is ban and confiscate

    2. avatar Old Fur Trapper says:

      There are now two democrats waiting to push through complete background checks just to buy bullets! Wasserass says the 2A does not cover the right to bear bullets! Therefore their bill will close what she calls a loophole in firearm legislation. Her bill says nothing about criminals of course! But she forgets completely the black market and those that cast their own,.

      1. avatar HP says:

        Here in NY, Mighty Liberal Dictator Benito Cuomo bullied through legislation in 2013 mandating background checks for ammunition. We’re now a month and a half shy of 2019, and no background checks exist, because the state has no way to perform the checks and there is no money to create any type of database. Needless to say, the astute gun owner has stockpiled anything needed at this point.

      2. avatar Mitchell says:

        It wouldn’t happen. 1 it would cost billions of dollars of wasted man hours and 2 it would waste store employee hours which Walmart and other annoying shops won’t support in the least bit. Their raising the age on ammo is their way of protection against another parkland incident that is stupid for them but it’s what they chose.

        1. avatar TomC says:

          Don’t ever believe that stupid legislation will never pass simply because it is stupid, or even because it would be physically impossible to comply.

        2. avatar Chadwick says:

          If you think it is unconstitutional, too expensive, or completely moronic, then there’s a dim out there that will argue you just hate kids and black people and transvestites, and immigrants, and homosexuals and so on. Facts don’t matter to some people and they never will. Welcome to around 50% of our nation.

    3. avatar frank speak says:

      ALWAYS keep a copy of your registration papers with your gun…and several more in a safe place…the burden of proof of ownership lies with you…as their record-keeping leaves much to be desired…

  2. avatar RWE says:

    I agree with all that was in this article, but it still sticks in my “craw”. Where in the Constitution did the Framers put in the “paperwork” requirement, or possibly it was under “permission slip”. I just can’t find anything like that anywhere in my copy of the Constitution.

  3. avatar Matt o says:

    There was a local ffl that offered to do an early form 4 like that for me back when wait times were at/over a year. I just walked away, they ended up getting shut down, something about underage sales but I don’t really know for sure

  4. avatar barnbwt says:

    Such an inaccurate, incomplete, and just plain wrong database…and yet it’s all a batfag, judge, & jury need to throw you in the clink. After the NFRTR questionnaire thing from a year or two ago that revealed how little regard even their AGENTS have for their systems’ validity, it is incomprehensible to me that the registries still stand up in court as evidence of non-payment. Realistically, the ATF simply cannot honestly argue there is no reasonable doubt a tax was not paid when a transaction doesn’t show in their registry, at least if it was supposed to have transpired anytime before quite recently.

  5. avatar Geoff "Mess with the bull, get the horns" PR says:

    “Since then, our friend made diligent photocopies of all his Form 4’s and Form 1’s, and stuck images of them in his Google drive account. In this day and age, it’s easier than ever to digitally store information. Google Drive is a tool, let the tool do the work.”

    Not just no, but HELL NO!

    *Never* trust anything 100 percent to the so-called ‘cloud’.

    If you need to keep duplicates of critical paperwork, make more than one copy, and store those copies in a fire-resistant box in DIFFERENT GEOGRAPHICAL LOCATIONS.

    Places like, family members you get along with, friends, a safe deposit box in a bank, etc. Oh, and ‘Google Drive’ should you feel so inclined…

    1. avatar Michael in AK says:

      Emailing pdfs to yourself and friends works too..

    2. avatar How_Terrible says:

      Storing back up copies in a locked box at your bank is also a good idea.

      1. avatar Geoff "Mess with the bull, get the horns" PR says:

        That’s *why* I wrote in my comment :

        “…a safe deposit box in a bank, etc.”

        1. avatar LarryinTX says:

          You didn’t say “locked”. So there.

  6. avatar Gopher says:

    Store it on Google Drive? Are you nuts? Google’s track record on privacy is none too good.

    Put a copy in your safe deposit box (either “dead tree” variety or scanned onto a USB drive). I wouldn’t trust Google with information on my firearms any further than I could throw one of their data centers…

    1. avatar Geoff "Mess with the bull, get the horns" PR says:

      USB drives have been known to ‘die’ for no reason.

      Dead tree printed via ‘laser copy’ (toner powder fused to paper via heat) is safest…

    2. avatar Mitchell says:

      Actually if you take a photo of it with your phone you could be safe or better yet make multiple copies and store a copy in your safety deposit box you definitely have back up plans in place incase of house fires, hurricanes, floods and whatever else could happen. Also a photo backed up online through a photo app is always a safe bet as well. Theirs plenty of better options than a USB because USB drives can be easily stolen or wiped clean but multiple copies in two or more safe places can never be completely destroyed. Especially if you spend $80 on a gun safe for pistols their usually fire and flood proof so all documents like your home deed and car titles will also be safe in their with a water resistant bag as well as passports and social security cards. They also can be wall mounted off the the ground and under stuff or into your wall.

    3. avatar doesky2 says:

      Veracrypt.
      Open Source.
      Free.
      https://www.veracrypt.fr/en/Home.html

      1. avatar Arc says:

        Yep! Its good for storing stuff in “clouds” without the host of the cloud being able to read it. Sure they can sit on it for a decade until computers catch up or an exploit is found…

        MicroSD chips and toss them in with a prep/doom tube PVC pipe and bury it.

    4. avatar Jeremy B. says:

      Are you worried that they might tell the government about your NFA items?

      1. avatar The Dude Abides says:

        Nice.

  7. avatar Chadwick says:

    Wait a sec… So you’re saying the atf isn’t our best buddy and they really will try and lock each and every one of us up given half a chance? Well color me shocked, shocked I say!

  8. avatar RocketScientist says:

    Weird. It was like reading a Firearms Concierge article…. but without the assholery, the condescension, the shitty attitude, the general feeling of needing to go take a shower, and the total disregard for his customers. I like this.

    1. avatar Owen says:

      My thoughts exactly!

      1. avatar Jeremy B. says:

        You forgot “self righteous” in your list. Otherwise, I totally agree.

  9. avatar Cruzo1981 says:

    I think I can say with all honesty. I really hate the BATFE…

  10. avatar m. says:

    an “interpreter” needed to clarify lawyer bulls**t from a guber-mint agency? no surprise.

  11. avatar little horn says:

    silencer shop. they have it all there for you. its awesome!

    1. avatar LarryinTX says:

      I dunno what they do anymore, I bought my suppressed SBR from them, now discover they don’t sell anything. Maybe they got so big they couldn’t physically store all the items they had sold but were waiting for clearance on.

  12. avatar Gordon in MO says:

    A few comments about storage:

    Google cloud is not secure. High tech companies are getting hacked all the time.

    USB drives fail. Yes, most of them last quite a while but I don’t depend on them for anything critical. The do degrade over time. Will you remember to “refresh” or copy to a new one every so often?

    DVD/CD are pretty reliable but they degrade over time.

    I do use my phone to take pictures of things and immediately transfer the picture to other devices. Phones fail and get lost or damaged.

    Also, keep in mind that technology changes and the old technology goes away. Think VCR tapes, 8mm film. 35mm film.

    Any critical information is printed and stored at least two separate locations. If you are really paranoid, like some people I know :-), print on acid free archive paper and store in acid free containers is a safe place like a safe deposit box.

  13. avatar Craig in IA says:

    “The good news is, at least you know ATF got your paperwork! And they’re actually looking at it! ” That’s GOOD NEWS????

  14. avatar randomcomment says:

    ” Now that ATF takes credit cards, you can very easily check your credit card statement and see what posted.”

    DO NOT DO THIS.

    The payment processing is contracted out. All it takes is one bad hire who thinks they can up their quota by face-rolling random #’s into the credit card number field and suddenly your paperwork gets rejected and they sit on your stamp money for 3-4 months. They only run the numbers once; if they don’t work, they throw you in the no-go pile and move to the next one.

    1. avatar Mitchell says:

      All credit cards are third party even the bank ones route customer service through South East Asia and all of India. Cabela’s card is MasterCard that routes to India same with Bass pro shop and many others. So all your gun purchases outside of paper your paying through third party all the same. At least this way even with a bank card you can reverse the amount of the transaction easier than trying it with a personal check.

  15. avatar randomcomment says:

    And also – for the love of God, do not upload copies of Form 4’s, firearm inventories, etc, to Google Drive.

    Internal employees, outside contractors, and some third parties have unsupervised read access to your Drive files. Internally, they also have write/delete access.

    Google can and does delete Drive content over claimed TOS violations.

    Why would you expose your NFA documentation to a few thousand moonbats?

  16. avatar Tex 2A says:

    I got a return letter once. Said that I printed my trust wrong, back side of trust was upside down. Guess the agent couldn’t read upside down……

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