Rick Vasquez, former Assistant Chief and Acting Chief of the ATF’s Firearms Technology Branch and current industry and government consultant on the National Firearms Act and other ATF and firearms classification matters, penned the following open letter. Directed at FFLs, SOTs, and consumers like you and me, it provides a brief glimpse inside recent changes made to the ATF’s NFA Branch and hits on a few things the industry can do to help speed up the approval process. Including, actually, Silencer Shop’s new barcode system.
The National Firearms Act Branch
The National Firearms Act (NFA) Branch of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives is located in Martinsburg WV. This branch has the monumental task of transferring and maintaining a registration database of all firearms regulated by the National Firearms Act.
This NFA branch has had a few makeovers over the years, but in April 2017 the branch saw a complete overhaul. The NFA branch became a division comprised of two branches. These two branches are comprised as follows:
The Industry Processing Branch (NFA IPB) is supervised and guided by IPB Branch Chief, Amy L. Stely. Amy is responsible for the daily operations of industry forms, processing at all levels, and working with ATF field personnel and the public to provide the best experience for the supply chain. This includes an effort to continually leverage technology enhancements and refine current operations.
The Government Support Branch (NFA GSB) – led by GSB Branch Chief, David Howell, oversees the daily processing of SOT applications, ATF Form 10 processing, 479.33 exemptions processing, and handling of industry expedite requests for Gov’t and LE. NFA GSB also oversees complex issues requiring policy evaluation or re-evaluation with FEID & FIPB and addressing Industry general requests such as 479.26 alternate procedure requests that are not policy related. Policy related requests are handled by FIPB. GSB directly supports Federal, state, and local entities with acquisitions and overall LE support.
Both branches of NFA are supervised by Alphonso Hughes, the newly selected Division Chief. I would say this is an overwhelming task except for the superb talent and the professionalism of the personnel under Alphonso. Though he has challenges, he has a workforce that supports him.
There are many in the industry that do not know the quantity of work that is completed by a few personnel. There are also many complaints about the time it takes to receive completed SOT applications. The following graphs show a short overview of the work being processed.
Fiscal Year Firearms Processed 2016 2,538,397 2015 1,426,211 2014 1,383,677 2013 1,152,163 2012 1,112,041 2011 992,975
As you can see, each year brings a higher number of forms being submitted and, therefore, an increase in the time it takes to receive an approved application back. If you are not aware, each government agency has a ceiling on personnel it can hire. There is also a budget that is for all operations of an agency. ATF fought on behalf of the industry and public to raise the ceiling of personnel in the NFA branch and received additional personnel in an attempt to keep up with the increase of applications. The NFA must also establish priorities in how it supports the public and the field. While it is their responsibility to complete all applications submitted, along with all of the law enforcement work, with limited manpower and resources and marked increases on submissions, the time to completion has increased. ATF has a small budget, and there will never be unlimited dollars to hire unlimited personnel to provide one day service.
You can assist with this timeline. First of all, complete your package correctly. There are discrepancies with approximately 50% of the forms submitted. Each of these discrepancies take time to respond to in order to get the corrections fixed. Prior to submitting your transfer application, have a second set of eyes review it for you. Create a checklist that you sign off on ensuring the SOT packages are complete. Once submitted, DON’T call in every few days to check on the status. Each time you call, it monopolizes the time of an analyst trying to get the forms completed. Additionally, all of the Congressional correspondence being submitted on your behalf to the ATF asking for a status, takes a person away from their work to respond to the congressional correspondence.
There are always things that an agency can do to improve its work processes. The NFA branch finally has the supervisors and personnel in place that will implement new and more efficient processes. A new barcode system is being implemented that will expedite the process of entering your submission into the work database. This alone will shave off weeks from the time it takes to enter each submission into the database.
I had the opportunity to meet with the Division chief recently for a cordial conversation.
Alphonso Hughes is a superstar and his supervisors are of the same caliber. We often hear of the 8 a.m. – 4 p.m. government employee, and I can confidently tell you that the supervisors of the NFA do not adhere to this. Alfonso, Amy Stely and David Howell are professionals that are earning their salary. I can attest that over a holiday weekend I sent in an email, on behalf of a customer with a government contract, not thinking I would get a response until the next work week. Amy responded over the weekend and assigned the task to one of her supervisors. Although it was our client’s mistake, it was resolved over a holiday. Of course, this was for a government contract with a high priority, but it indicates she was working during the holiday weekend.
I believe that you must compliment instead of continually criticizing. The NFA branch provides a service of monumental proportions. If you looked at a percentage of mess-ups to proper completions, they would have an extremely good average. However, through communication with Alphonso Hughes, their goal is to have 100% perfect completion. This is going to take time. If you have a good experience with a person in the NFA, please call out these occurrences on your blogs and emails.
Former Assistant Chief and Acting Chief of the Firearms Technology Branch
Consultant on the NFA, FTIB Functions, and ATF matters to the firearms community.