Welcome to the National Tracing Center, the ATF-run facility that handles every request for a gun trace that comes in to the feds. Picturing a modern office building with computers spitting out owners' names? Allow Jeanne Marie Laskas at GQ to bust that image. The NTC is housed "in a low, flat boring building that belies its past as an IRS facility, just off state highway 9 in Martinsburg, West Virginia." Inside you'll see lots of boxes and microfilm as workers try to process approximately 1,500 traces daily. “It's a shoestring budget,” says Charlie Houser, who runs the center. “It's not 10,000 agents and a big sophisticated place. It's a bunch of friggin' boxes. All half-ass records." As for those computers: They don't exist because the NTC is not permitted to have centralized computer data—by law, no searchable database can exist.
Yes, people have to fill out form 4473, the Firearms Transaction Record, in which they swear they are not a felon or otherwise ineligible, when they buy a gun. And "it would be reasonable to assume, as many people do, that since 4473 is a federal form, the feds have them all locked up somewhere safe, but they don't," writes Laskas. Those forms stay at the gun shop, unless the shop goes out of business, in which case they are sent to the NTC. So all those boxes? “Those are just the out-of-business records," says Houser. Performing a trace, then, often comes down to the laborious task of finding the right 4473, wherever it may be. Click for the full article that details the byzantine process involved. (Read more gun sales stories.)