The National Tracing Center in Martinsburg, W.Va., is the only place in the nation authorized to trace gun sales, says the Washington Post in the third in a series. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives staffers make phone calls and pore over handwritten records to track down gun owners. The government is prohibited from putting gun ownership records into an easily accessible format, such as a searchable computer database. The National Rifle Association has successfully blocked computerization, arguing against any national registry of firearm ownership.
Concerns about government regulation of gun ownership have limited the resources available to the ATF, led to strict regulatory restrictions, and left the agency without leadership. The agency has about the same number of agents it had nearly four decades ago: 2,500. It inspects only a small fraction of the nation’s 60,000 retail gun dealers, taking as much as eight years between visits to stores. ATF cannot require dealers to conduct a physical inventory to determine whether any guns have been lost or stolen. “We’re a political football,” said James Cavanaugh, who recently retired as special agent in charge of the ATF’s Nashville office after a 30-year career.