The way guns are traced in the U.S. is so unbelievably archaic, you have to see it to believe it

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.

WTF, America.

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 officeand 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?

Photo by NeONBRAND on Unsplash

I'll never forget the exhilaration I felt as I headed into the city on July 3, 2018. My pink hair was styled. I wore it up in a high ponytail, though I left two tendrils down. Two tendrils which framed my face. My makeup was done. I wore shadow on my eyes and blush on my cheeks, blush which gave me color. Which brought my pale complexion to life. And my confidence grew each time my heels clacked against the concrete.

My confidence grew with each and every step.

Why? Because I was a strong woman. A city woman. A woman headed to interview for her dream job.

I nailed the interview. Before I boarded the bus back home, I had an offer letter in my inbox. I was a news writer, with a salary and benefits, but a strange thing happened 13 months later. I quit said job in an instant. On a whim. I walked down Fifth Avenue and never looked back. And while there were a few reasons why I quit that warm, summer day: I was a new(ish) mom. A second-time mom, and I missed my children. Spending an hour with them each day just wasn't enough. My daughter was struggling in school. She needed oversight. Guidance. She needed my help. And my commute was rough. I couldn't cover the exorbitant cost of childcare. The real reason I quit was because my mental health was failing.


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Photo by NeONBRAND on Unsplash

I'll never forget the exhilaration I felt as I headed into the city on July 3, 2018. My pink hair was styled. I wore it up in a high ponytail, though I left two tendrils down. Two tendrils which framed my face. My makeup was done. I wore shadow on my eyes and blush on my cheeks, blush which gave me color. Which brought my pale complexion to life. And my confidence grew each time my heels clacked against the concrete.

My confidence grew with each and every step.

Why? Because I was a strong woman. A city woman. A woman headed to interview for her dream job.

I nailed the interview. Before I boarded the bus back home, I had an offer letter in my inbox. I was a news writer, with a salary and benefits, but a strange thing happened 13 months later. I quit said job in an instant. On a whim. I walked down Fifth Avenue and never looked back. And while there were a few reasons why I quit that warm, summer day: I was a new(ish) mom. A second-time mom, and I missed my children. Spending an hour with them each day just wasn't enough. My daughter was struggling in school. She needed oversight. Guidance. She needed my help. And my commute was rough. I couldn't cover the exorbitant cost of childcare. The real reason I quit was because my mental health was failing.


Keep Reading Show less
True

Each year, an estimated 1.8 million people in the United States are affected by cancer — most commonly cancers of the breast, lung, prostate, and blood cancers such as leukemia. While not everyone overcomes the disease, thanks to science, more people are surviving — and for longer — than ever before in history.

We asked three people whose lives have been impacted by cancer to share their stories – how their lives were changed by the disease, and how they're using that experience to change the future of cancer treatments with the hope that ultimately, in the fight against cancer, science will win. Here's what they had to say.

Celine Ryan, 55, engineer database programmer and mother of five from Detroit, MI

Photo courtesy of Celine Ryan

In September 2013, Celine Ryan woke up from a colonoscopy to some traumatic news. Her gastroenterologist showed her a picture of the cancerous mass they found during the procedure.

Ryan and her husband, Patrick, had scheduled a colonoscopy after discovering some unusual bleeding, so the suspicion she could have cancer was already there. Neither of them, however, were quite prepared for the results to be positive -- or for the treatment to begin so soon. Just two days after learning the news, Ryan had surgery to remove the tumor, part of her bladder, and 17 cancerous lymph nodes. Chemotherapy and radiation soon followed.

Ryan's treatment was rigorous – but in December 2014, she got the devastating news that the cancer, once confined to her colon, had spread to her lungs. Her prognosis, they said, was likely terminal.

But rather than give up hope, Ryan sought support from online research, fellow cancer patients and survivors, and her medical team. When she brought up immunotherapy to her oncologist, he quickly agreed it was the best course of action. Ryan's cancer, like a majority of colon and pancreatic cancers, had been caused by a defect on the gene KRAS, which can result in a very aggressive cancer that is virtually "undruggable." According to the medical literature, the relatively smooth protein structure of the KRAS gene meant that designing inhibitors to bind to surface grooves and treat the cancer has been historically difficult. Through her support systems, Ryan discovered an experimental immunotherapy trial at the National Institutes of Health (NIH) in Bethesda, MD., and called them immediately to see if she was eligible. After months of trying to determine whether she was a suitable candidate for the experimental treatment, Ryan was finally accepted.

The treatment, known as tumor-infiltrating lymphocyte therapy, or TIL, is a testament to how far modern science has evolved. With this therapy, doctors remove a tumor and harvest special immune cells that are found naturally in the tumor. Doctors then grow the cells in a lab over the next several weeks with a protein that promotes rapid TIL growth – and once the cells number into the billions, they are infused back into the patient's body to fight the cancer. On April 1, 2015, Ryan had her tumor removed at the NIH. Two months later, she went inpatient for four weeks to have the team "wash out" her immune system with chemotherapy and infuse the cells – all 148 billion of them – back into her body.

Six weeks after the infusion, Ryan and Patrick went back for a follow-up appointment – and the news they got was stunning: Not only had no new tumors developed, but the six existing tumors in her lungs had shrunk significantly. Less than a year after her cell infusion, in April 2016, the doctors told Ryan news that would have been impossible just a decade earlier: Thanks to the cell infusion, Ryan was now considered NED – no evaluable disease. Her body was cancer-free.

Ryan is still NED today and continuing annual follow-up appointments at the NIH, experiencing things she never dreamed she'd be able to live to see, such as her children's high school and college graduations. She's also donating her blood and cells to the NIH to help them research other potential cancer treatments. "It was an honor to do so," Ryan said of her experience. "I'm just thrilled, and I hope my experience can help a lot more people."

Patrice Lee, PhD, VP of Pharmacology, Toxicology and Exploratory Development at Pfizer

Photo courtesy of Patrice Lee

Patrice Lee got into scientific research in an unconventional way – through the late ocean explorer Jacques Cousteau.

Lee never met Cousteau but her dreams of working with him one day led her to pursue a career in science. Initially, Lee completed an undergraduate degree in marine biology; eventually, her interests changed and she decided to get a dual doctoral degree in physiology and toxicology at Duke University. She now works at Pfizer's R&D site in Boulder, CO (formerly Array BioPharma), leading a group of scientists who determine the safety and efficacy of new oncology drugs.

"Scientists focused on drug discovery and development in the pharmaceutical industry are deeply committed to inventing new therapies to meet unmet needs," Lee says, describing her field of work. "We're driven to achieve new medicines and vaccines as quickly as possible without sacrificing safety."

Among the drugs Lee has helped develop during her career, including cancer therapies, she says around a dozen are currently in development, while nine have received FDA approval — an incredible accomplishment as many scientists spend their careers without seeing their drug make it to market. Lee's team is particularly interested in therapies for brain metastases — something that Lee says is a largely unmet need in cancer research, and something her team is working on from a variety of angles. "Now that we've had rapid success with mRNA vaccine technology, we hope to explore what the future holds when applying this technology to cancers," Lee says.

But while evaluating potential cancer therapies is a professional passion of Lee's, it's also a mission that's deeply personal. "I'm also a breast cancer survivor," she says. "So I've been on the other side of things and have participated in a clinical trial."

However, seeing how melanoma therapies that she helped develop have affected other real-life cancer patients, she says, has been a highlight of her career. "We had one therapy that was approved for patients with BRAF-mutant metastatic melanoma," Lee recalls. "Our team in Boulder was graced by a visit from a patient that had benefited from these drugs that we developed. It was a very special moment for the entire team."

None of these therapies would be available, Lee says without rigorous science behind it: "Facts come from good science. Facts will drive the development of new drugs, and that's what will help patients."

Chiuying "Cynthia" Kuk (they/them) MS, 34, third-year medical student at Michigan State University College of Human Medicine

Photo courtesy of Cynthia Kuk

Cynthia Kuk was just 10 years old when they had a conversation that would change their life forever.

"My mother, who worked as a translator for the government at the time, had been diagnosed with breast cancer, and after her chemotherapy treatments she would get really sick," Kuk, who uses they/them pronouns, recalls. "When I asked my dad why mom was puking so much, he said it was because of the medicine she was taking that would help her get better."

Kuk's response was immediate: "That's so stupid! Why would a medicine make you feel worse instead of better? When I'm older, I want to create medicine that won't make people sick like that."

Nine years later, Kuk traveled from their native Hong Kong to the United States to do exactly that. Kuk enrolled in a small, liberal arts college for their Bachelor's degree, and then four years later started a PhD program in cancer research. Although Kuk's mother was in remission from her cancer at the time, Kuk's goal was the same as it had been as a 10-year-old watching her suffer through chemotherapy: to design a better cancer treatment, and change the landscape of cancer research forever.

Since then, Kuk's mission has changed slightly.

"My mom's cancer relapsed in 2008, and she ended up passing away about five years after that," Kuk says. "After my mom died, I started having this sense of urgency. Cancer research is such that you work for twenty years, and at the end of it you might have a fancy medication that could help people, but I wanted to help people now." With their mother still at the forefront of their mind, Kuk decided to quit their PhD program and enter medical school.

Now, Kuk plans to pursue a career in emergency medicine – not only because they are drawn to the excitement of the emergency room, but because the ER is a place where the most marginalized people tend to seek care.

"I have a special interest in the LGBTQ+ population, as I identify as queer and nonbinary," says Kuk. "A lot of people in this community and other marginalized communities access care through the ER and also tend to avoid medical care since there is a history of mistreatment and judgement from healthcare workers. How you carry yourself as a doctor, your compassion, that can make a huge difference in someone's care."

In addition to making a difference in the lives of LGBTQ+ patients, Kuk wants to make a difference in the lives of patients with cancer as well, like their mother had.

"We've diagnosed patients in the Emergency Department with cancer before," Kuk says. "I can't make cancer good news but how you deliver bad news and the compassion you show could make a world of difference to that patient and their family."

During their training, Kuk advocates for patients by delivering compassionate and inclusive care, whether they happen to have cancer or not. In addition to emphasizing their patient's pronouns and chosen names, they ask for inclusive social and sexual histories as well as using gender neutral language. In doing this, they hope to make medicine as a whole more accessible for people who have been historically pushed aside.

"I'm just one person, and I can't force everyone to respect you, if you're marginalized," Kuk says. "But I do want to push for a culture where people appreciate others who are different from them."