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How (and Why) Firearms Are Tracked in America Without Computers

Technology By
National Tracing Center
ATF Firearms Specialist Richard Vasquez is surrounded by a cache of firearms in the gun vault on March 5, 2010, at the ATF National Tracing Center in Martinsburg, West Virginia. (Ricky Carioti/The Washington Post via Getty Images)

Lately, guns have been everywhere; it’s as if the national fetish with firearms has reached an apex. Whether they’re being used in mass shootings, invoked by the president of the United States, or glorified on the silver screen, guns have become a hot-button issue that doesn’t seem to be going anywhere anytime soon.

National Tracing Center
A variety of handguns in the gun vault at the ATF National Tracing Center (Ricky Carioti/The Washington Post via Getty Images)

 

Speaking of their place in the fictional narratives of films, what Hollywood leads you to believe is that when a gun is used in a crime, a police officer or federal agent can easily trace it via its serial number. But that is, like many quirks of movie scripts, a complete fiction. Says ATF agent Charlie Houser, bluntly, to GQ writer Jeanne Marie Laskas: “We ain’t got a registration system. Ain’t nobody registering no damn guns.”

It turns out that Houser is the database. He works at the National Tracing Center in Martinsburg, West Virginia, with about 49 other ATF agents, who have to sift through microfilm—yes, microfilm—to trace a gun’s origins. (They process about 1,500 traces a day and 370,000, annually.) The most incredible aspect of the center’s work? Due to federal law, it hasn’t been allowed access to or use of a computer database (i.e. “No searchable database of America’s gun owners,” per Laskas) since 1986.

National Tracing Center
Linda Mickelinc, duplicating imaging clerk, scans a closed gun retailer’s records at the ATF National Tracing Center (Ricky Carioti/The Washington Post via Getty Images)

 

With everything so automated these days—including the guns themselves—how is this even possible in 2016? (To put the scale of the challenge in perspective, there are over 300 million guns in America.) Click here for GQ‘s answer.