Millions of firearm purchase records, potentially critical to tracing guns used in crimes, languish in West Virginia in scores of cardboard boxes and shipping containers awaiting processing at the government’s National Tracing Center, reports USA Today. Officials estimate that 1.6 million paper documents and other records arrive monthly from defunct firearm dealers who are required to ship their business records, some barely discernible, to a Bureau of Alcohol Tobacco Firearms and Explosives facility for inclusion in a digital repository. Up to 50 times a day, document examiners comb through everything from 1970s-era microfilm to hand-written cards in an effort to satisfy sometimes urgent pleas for assistance from law enforcement agencies from across the country, says ATF information specialist Neil Troppman.
The avalanche of records is a little-noticed yet critical component of an escalating firearms debate that underscores both the strained operations of the federal government’s chief gun enforcement agency and the strength of a gun rights lobby intent on preventing the creation of a national gun registry. The dysfunctional document management system exists as ATF examiners are faced with a steadily increasing demand for tracing guns used in crimes — 364,441 requests last year — and as the agency seeks to assist local law enforcement authorities in cities including Chicago, St. Louis, Milwaukee and Baltimore where there have been dramatic spikes in gun-related violence. Ben Hayes, a former ATF official who oversaw parts of the tracing center’s operations, said the ever-mounting caches of paper and the archaic records system resembled the aftermath of a biblical flood. “”It’s really sad,” he said. “It’s pathetic.”