“It’s a shoestring budget,” says Charlie, who runs the center.
“It’s not 10,000 agents and a big sophisticated place. It’s a
bunch of friggin’ boxes. All half-ass records. We have about 50
ATF employees. And all the rest are basically the ladies. The
ladies that live in West Virginia — and they got a job. There’s a
huge amount of labor being put into looking through microfilm.”
I want to ask about the microfilm — microfilm? — but it’s hard
to get a word in. He’s already gone three rounds on the
whiteboard, scribbling, erasing, illustrating some of the finer
points of gun tracing, of which there are many, in large part due
to the limitations imposed upon this place. For example, no
computer. The National Tracing Center is not allowed to have
centralized computer data.
“That’s the big no-no,” says Charlie.
That’s been a federal law, thanks to the NRA, since 1986: No
searchable database of America’s gun owners. So people here have
to use paper, sort through enormous stacks of forms and record
books that gun stores are required to keep and to eventually turn
over to the feds when requested. It’s kind of like a library in
the old days — but without the card catalog. They can use
pictures of paper, like microfilm (they recently got the go-ahead
to convert the microfilm to PDFs), as long as the pictures of
paper are not searchable. You have to flip through and read. No
searching by gun owner. No searching by name.
The legislation that keeps the ATF from computerizing these records is lunacy, based entirely on the fever dream that such a database would lead to mass confiscation.