I don't ever remember my jaw dropping like it did when I learned about America's gun-tracing process.
It wasn't even a topic I was all that interested in, to be honest. Gun policy? Sure. Gun tracing? Meh.
But the headline of this 2016 GQ article — "Inside the Federal Bureau of Way Too Many Guns" — caught my eye, so I dove in. All I can say is "Holy sh**." I'm not sure if I'm more shocked, appalled, or mesmerized, but I definitely feel some big feelings.
Photo by Scott Barbour/Getty Images.
I suppose I always assumed there had to be a few limitations to what the government could do about guns. But I didn't realize how far those limits reached — or how absurd those limitations would make the entire gun tracing operation appear.
Frankly, if the following wild facts don't boggle your mind, I'm not sure how we exist on the same planet.
1. Let's start with this: Gun records aren't kept on a computer database. They aren't allowed to be.
To keep track of guns and gun sales, folks at the National Tracing Center in West Virginia — an agency of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) — use a combination of millions of pieces of paper and microfilm. They have no searchable, centralized computer database of gun data — not by serial number, not by owner registration, not by sales records — nothing of the sort.
As Charlie Houser, the genuinely fascinating ATF agent who runs the National Tracing Center told GQ, "We ain't got a registration system. Ain't nobody registering no damn guns."
Charlie Houser heads up the National Tracing Center in Martinsburg, West Virginia. Screenshot via MEL Films.
So the 49 ATF agents who work at the tracing center have to manually flip through millions — literally millions — of pieces of paper and microfilm to perform their traces.
Paper and microfilm. For information that could easily be kept and quickly searched on a computer database. For information that really shouldn't need shipping container after shipping container full of boxes to maintain.
2. We are the among the most technologically advanced countries in the world, yet our gun tracing system is straight out of 1984.
I mean the actual year 1984, though the novel might apply, too.
To give you a taste of what I'm talking about, check out this 10-minute short film, "Guns Found Here":
Just the first 10 seconds of that video speaks volumes. Click click click click. Flip flip flip flip. The latter? It's the sound of just a few of the 67 million pieces of paper in the office — and the 2 million more arriving every month.
Each paper means at least one gun, by the way. "Bizarrely antiquated" is one phrase that comes to mind. "Maddeningly inefficient" is another.
I mean, this is the 21st century, right? We haven't slipped into some kind of time warp, have we?
You really have to give it to Houser and his team, though. These dedicated folks have somehow pieced together a system that works as well as it possibly could despite the considerable limitations placed upon them.
But seriously, there is no way this is sustainable, physically or logistically.
3. The absurdity of our gun tracing system highlights our country's unique relationship with guns.
Much of the world is bemused and bewildered by America's relationship with guns. Heck, I was born and raised here, and I still don't get it myself.
Yes, we have the Second Amendment. But we also have the reality that the U.S. is a complete and total outlier when it comes to gun violence among developed nations. We have enough guns to arm every man, woman, and child (or at least we think we do — nobody knows for sure because we can't track them). Our firearm laws are all over the place, varying widely from state to state and city to city. And while we joke about gun worshippers, we have people literally using guns in worship.
But the weirdest thing to me about America and guns is the paranoia about the government that handcuffs our ability to effectively study the issue of gun violence.
Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images.
Some Americans fear a centralized gun database because a tyrannical government could theoretically use it to confiscate people's weapons. At 5:45 in the video above, you hear a gentleman from GunGuyTV say, "There is no compelling reason for any government to register privately owned firearms unless they're planning to take them away."
If you say so, GunGuy. But in the real world, we need data to help us understand problems and find solutions for them.
Cars are a good example. I recently did some research on gun deaths vs. car deaths and was easily able to find exact numbers for how many cars there are, how many drivers are licensed, and all the various data one would need to get an accurate picture of car usage, accidents, etc. And we've used this data to make driving safer — in fact, we've decreased our car accident fatality rate by half since the early 1980s.
With guns, the picture looks much different. The numbers of guns and gun owners are all estimated based on polls and sales reports. We have no way to know what kinds of guns we have, who's carrying them, where they are, how many there are — nada. Reliable, trackable data just isn't there.
And even if it were, it would apparently be scanned into microfilm or piled up in shipping containers waiting to be flipped through by hand — so many papers that the floor might collapse.
GIF via "Stranger Things"/Netflix.
It blows my mind that more people aren't bothered by this — including Houser and others who work at the Tracing Center.
Houser appears to be resigned to the unusual reality of his life's work. And from the descriptions of the other workers in the GQ article, it seems his co-workers simply take pride in their jobs and aren't fazed by the fact that it could be made so much simpler.
But what about the rest of America? One gun = one piece of paper. Maybe people just don't know that this is how gun data works in America. I know I had a lot of assumptions before delving deep into the subject.
I mean, why would one think there wouldn't be a computer database used to trace guns? I'd assume that law enforcement could just type in a serial number, pull up a gun record in the blink of an eye, and voila! We know whose gun it is. Seems logical in the age where people carry computers around in their pockets, right?
But nope. Not even close. Paper and microfilm. Click click click. Flip flip flip flip.
Congress discussed firearm data keeping after the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School shooting. Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images.
Isn't it time we brought gun-related data into the 21st century? Shouldn't we demand common sense in at least this one area from our lawmakers?