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.