[ED: This post is the second in a new series. If you have a question for an experienced federal firearms licensee, send it to firstname.lastname@example.org 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.