The U.S. federal government has amassed records comprising more than 920 million gun sales from the records of firearms dealers who went out of business, according to the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms (ATF).
In a letter (pdf), the ATF told Rep. Michael Cloud (R-Texas) that as of November 2021, it was holding a database of 920,664,765 firearm purchase records. The letter was obtained and first reported by the Washington Free Beacon.
“This includes digital and an estimated number of hard copy records that are awaiting image conversion. It is currently estimated that 865,787,086 of those records are in digitalized format,” Daniel Board, ATF assistant director of public and governmental affairs, told the congressman.
The letter reveals that the ATF is overseeing a number of gun owners’ records far higher than previously disclosed. The Washington Free Beacon reported in November 2021 that in fiscal year 2021, the ATF processed 54.7 million firearms purchase records—53.8 million in paper copies, and 887,000 more in electronic format.
The database, called the Out of Business Records Imaging System, was developed by the ATF in 2006 “due to practical concerns related to maintaining paper and microfilm records,” the letter stated.
Federal law requires the ATF to obtain all records maintained by a licensed firearms dealer when the business goes under. The physical records are being stored at a federal site in West Virginia. The ATF is also digitizing the records into a searchable computer database.
As per federal law, Americans who buy a gun at a licensed firearms dealer must fill out a firearms transaction record (ATF Form 4473), and the gun store must maintain the records for at least 20 years.
Concern Over Potentially Creating an Illegal Registry
Cloud and 51 other House representatives sent a letter (pdf) to the ATF on Nov. 22, 2021, expressing concern about the database that is being digitized, as well as about how the Biden administration has been seeking to create a rule that would, instead of allowing the gun purchase records to be purged after 20 years, require all licensed firearms dealers to preserve the records “until the business or licensed activity is discontinued.”
By requiring the gun store owners to hold all records for the duration of their business activities, it means “100 [percent] of all lawful commercial firearm transfers would eventually end up in an ATF computer system, thereby creating a permanent database,” the lawmakers said in their letter, adding that the proposed regulation would essentially require licensed firearms dealers to “facilitate the creation of a federal gun registry.”
“Indeed, current regulations require [federal firearms licensees (FFLs)] to send firearm transaction records to the ATF when an FFL goes out of business,” the lawmakers noted. “However, Congress has also made it clear in the Firearms Owners’ Protection Act that the federal government shall not create a federal gun registry and has prohibited ATF from creating any centralized databases with its funding.”
Amy Hunter, a spokeswoman for the National Rifle Association (NRA), told The Epoch Times via email that the NRA is “deeply concerned” that the out-of-business records “could be used to form a database of law-abiding gun owners,” and the NRA is “taking steps to rectify this matter.”
Cloud reiterated his views on the matter in a Twitter post late Jan. 30.
“A federal firearm registry is explicitly banned by law,” he wrote. “The Biden Administration continues to empower criminals while diminishing the rights of law-abiding Americans. The ATF is shamelessly circumventing existing law to accumulate these records. They must be held accountable.”
ATF: Database Used to Trace Guns in Crimes
Lawmakers told the ATF: “18 U.S. Code [Section] 926 prohibits ‘any system of registration of firearms, firearms owners, or firearms transactions or dispositions [from] be[ing] established.’ Explain in detail how the Out-of-Business Records Center policy combined with proposed rule change in ATF2021R-05 does not violate the statutory restriction on a federal gun or gun owner registry.”
The agency responded, “With regard to the proposed rule (ATF-2021R-05) on which you commented, ATF is confident that it does not violate any laws.”
The ATF also stated that its out-of-business database doesn’t “capture and store certain key information, such as firearms purchaser information, in an automated file.”
“The sole purpose of these systems is to trace firearms used in crimes, which is a valuable crime gun intelligence tool used in thousands of investigations by ATF and our local, State, and Federal law enforcement partners,” the bureau stated, adding that the U.S. Government Accountability Office in 2016 had noted in its report that “ATF collects and maintains firearms transaction information in each system incident to the implementation of specific statutory authority and it does not exceed those statutory purposes.”
“The vast majority of the criminal firearms traces completed by the ATF National Tracing Center (NTC) are done for State and local law enforcement agencies across the country pursuant to active law enforcement investigations. The NTC only traces crime guns, and every trace must be identified as such by the requestor by selecting an appropriate crime code when submitting the trace request.”
Zachary Stieber contributed to this report.