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Gun Registration Paper Trail Is Long And Convoluted


The fear of creating a national registry of gun owners comes up again and again from the NRA and supporters, such as Senator Cruz. We're going to walk through the steps of the paperwork involved in buying a gun now and what happens to it. To do that, I'm joined by David Chipman, who retired after 25 years as an agent with the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives. Welcome to the program.

DAVID CHIPMAN: Thank you for having me.

BLOCK: And full disclosure, you're now a consultant with the group Mayors Against Illegal Guns, right?

CHIPMAN: That's correct.

BLOCK: Let's talk about current law now. If I go to a licensed gun dealer and I want to buy a gun, I have to fill out this form right here. It's a few pages long, the firearms transaction record, ATF 4473. What information am I giving here?

CHIPMAN: Basically, what you're putting on that form is the same information you'd have on your state or government-issued ID. It'd be your name, date of birth, address. It does give you the option of putting your Social Security number on there, which isn't mandatory, but it does help if your name's similar to other people and there might be some confusion.

BLOCK: It also asks a bunch of questions, though, that would prohibit me from buying a gun, right? Am I a felon? Am I fugitive? All sorts of things like that.

CHIPMAN: Right. Different items that would make it unlawful and actually a 10-year federal felony for you to possess a gun.

BLOCK: OK. So I fill this out at the dealer, and what happens to it then?

CHIPMAN: Then what the dealer does is that he or she takes that information and calls the FBI, and they compare that information to a list of people who shouldn't have a gun. And as long as you don't match any of those names, the dealer is allowed to proceed, and that's what happens in over 90 percent of the cases. And it actually happens in a matter of moments, quicker than it will take you to buy a cup of coffee.

BLOCK: What happens to this form at that point?

CHIPMAN: That form is always kept in paper form in the dealer shop, and there are about 60,000 dealers all across the country. And it's an agreement that these forms be kept in a manual fashion to make sure that there could be no computerized registry of these records.

BLOCK: And the NICS information, the instant background check information, what happens to that?

CHIPMAN: Well, it depends at what happens with the check. If you're part of those over 90 percent of the people who passed the check, that information that you even had your name called in is destroyed in 24 hours.

BLOCK: It has to be, by law, correct?

CHIPMAN: By law.

BLOCK: Let's say that a gun that I've purchased appears at a crime scene. What happens then in terms of trying to trace where that gun came from?

CHIPMAN: Well, because of this system, which is all relying on manual records, it's not like CSI on TV. Someone at the ATF National Tracing Center has to call the manufacturer of that gun. They have records of when they sold it to a wholesaler. ATF then calls the wholesaler. The wholesaler has records. And then ATF calls the dealer from which the wholesaler sold the gun. And then that dealer goes to this record that we talked about earlier, which is kept on paper form in their business records.

BLOCK: How many files are we talking about? If it's a really busy gun dealer, where are they keeping all these paperwork?

CHIPMAN: Yeah. It varies. If you have a large big-box store, it's very professionally arranged. If it's a smaller mom-and-pop store, sometimes it's just boxes and a dusty back room. One of the most troubling things we had to deal with is in Hurricane Katrina. There were a number of gun stores that went underwater, and they went out of business, and these records had to be dried out.

BLOCK: How long do gun dealers have to keep these records.

CHIPMAN: These records, the 4473s, have to be kept for 20 years. After 20 years, they can be destroyed. If they go out of business before that 20-year period, they must box up those records and ship them to ATF. Once they come to ATF, ATF is not allowed to computerize them.

BLOCK: And explain why this is a manual system. Why isn't it computerized and searchable?

CHIPMAN: It's a typical government compromise. It's trying to balance the rights of privacy versus the responsibilities of law enforcement to prevent crime. And this is where Congress decided would be that balance, which would have a system by which no one could say that ATF somehow has a registry of guns and that we could go out and confiscate them.

BLOCK: We do hear, though, all the time, the language, that this is one step toward creating a national gun registry, expanding background checks, say, to gun shows. That is the language.

CHIPMAN: They say it's a step, but I would say it's the first of about a thousand steps that would have been taken. The reality is, is one of the most frustrating experiences I used to have in my career is when gun owners who were the victim of crime would call the ATF office and say, hey, my house was broken into. Could you tell me the description of the firearm that I bought? And we would say, well, no, we don't have that authority. And most were shocked, that it was their impression that ATF did have this registry already. It's not true, and we don't have that power.


David Chipman is a former agent with the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, and he's now a consultant with the group Mayors Against Illegal Guns. Thanks for coming in.

CHIPMAN: Thanks for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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