Behind the Curtain of ATF’s ‘Absurd’ Gun-Tracing System

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Photo by Mitch Barrie via Flickr

Photo by Mitch Barrie via Flickr

GQ explores the Luddite-style process the federal government uses to connect a gun to its owner after a crime is committed. It happens at the ATF’s National Tracing Center in Martinsburg, W.V. On any given day, agents there run about 1,500 traces; they do about 370,000 a year. The magazine describes it as a “Kafkaesque agency…where, thanks to the gun lobby, computers are illegal and detective work is absurdly antiquated. On purpose. Thing is, the geniuses who work there are quietly inventing ways to do the impossible.”

“I get e-mails even from police saying, ‘Can you type in the serial number and tell me who the gun is registered to?’” says ATF Agent Charlie Houser, 51. “They think it’s like a VIN number on a car. Even police. Police from everywhere. ‘Hey, can you guys hurry up and type that number in?’ It’s a shoestring budget. It’s a bunch of friggin’ boxes. All half-ass records.” Houser adds, “We ain’t got a registration system. Ain’t nobody registering no damn guns.” There is no national database of guns–no centralized record of who owns all the firearms we so vigorously debate, no hard data regarding how many people own them, how many of them are bought or sold, or how many even exist. What we have instead is Charlie Houser.

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