Since the passing of the National Firearms Act in 1934, the federal government has been tasked with maintaining a database of records for NFA weapons, and additionally, while performing inspections of FFLs, they must also ensure NFA compliance, a job currently overseen by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives Office of the Inspector General. This database, the National Firearms Registration and Transfer Records (NFRTR), contains roughly two million possession records of machine guns, short barreled rifles and shotguns, suppressors, AOWs, and explosive devices not under the control of the U.S. government.
The accuracy of the NFRTR is paramount to not just the Bureau’s ability to ensure FFL compliance with the NFA, but more importantly to the two million possessors of registered NFA weapons who rely on the accuracy of the NFRTR to keep them out of prison. Violations of the NFA (being in possession of an NFA weapon without proper paperwork) carry fines of up to $250,000 and/or a 10 year prison sentence; people can get sent to prison based on their records or lack thereof.
The Bureau has long maintained that the accuracy of the NFRTR was above reproach and unquestionable, that is until ATF agents themselves were actually questioned about them.
An internal online survey of ATF Industry Operations Investigators was performed years ago consisting of closed and open ended questions regarding the NFRTR and its impact on their duties, but the Bureau never publicly released the analysis and summary of the survey, as it was rumored that the results were damning… until now.
Newly released documents obtained by Mr. David Hardy through his attorneys Alan Beck and Stephen Stamboulieh through a Freedom of Information Act lawsuit demonstrate the total lack of confidence the ATF’s own agents have in the NFRTR as it pertains to their ability to perform compliance inspections of FFLs and NFA weapons.
Questions such as Question 7, “How often is the discrepancy due to an error in the NFRTR?” Out of 299 responses:
Always – 30
Most – 103
Sometimes – 99
232 out of 299 state NFRTR error
Or Question 12, “How do errors and discrepancies in NFRTR inventory reports affect your ability to carry out compliance inspections?”
One IOI answered, “Errors and discrepancies make ATF, as a whole, look inept. These are extremely important records and our own NFA Branch can’t even get it right. It takes extra hour(s) to rectify these problems, and sometimes we find out 1-2 years down the road on the next inspection that the corrections we forwarded to the NFA Branch aren’t even taken care of by the next inspection.”
Another answered, “Since there is no requirement for the Transferor of an NFA firearm to keep a copy of an approved transfer form once the firearm is transferred, it is very difficult to determine if the transfer took place correctly without contacting each licensee or person to whom the firearms were sold.”
And worse yet, “As ATF Investigators, we cannot determine if a FFL is missing NFA weapons or if a FFL is in possession of an unregistered NFA weapon, or if a FFL is in possession of NFA weapons registered to another FFL/individual without accurate records from the NFA Branch.”
Question 13, “How do errors and discrepancies in the NFRTR inventory reports affect the FFLs you inspect?”
Answer: “While the burden of proof is generally placed upon the FFL to demonstrate that the firearms were properly transferred, incorrect information from the NFRTR can cause an undue burden for those FFL’s who have properly transferred the firearms yet must spend days or weeks searching for documentation to prove these transfers.”
Answer: “FFL’s are upset, become very concerned, and fear any possible liability or action that might be erroneously taken against them as a result.”
Question 14: “Do you have any suggestions for improving the NFRTR inventory reports or the work of the NFA Branch?”
The best answer given: “I have none that anyone would find palatable!”
What does this all mean? It calls into question and casts reasonable doubt on every conviction of NFA violations based on the supposed unquestionable accuracy of the NFRTR. Every time they claimed there was no or incorrect records on file for an NFA weapon, and thus sent someone away to prison, there is now evidence in the ATF’s own analysis and summary that they very well were wrong.
It should also cause concern for all current possessors of registered NFA weapons that they need to be sure they can 100% prove that they are in compliance with the NFA, because the ATF cannot say that they can. If there is a discrepancy, as one IOI put it in regards to inspecting FFLs, “They feel that if their inventory was ever challenged that they would lose the fight because, in their opinion, the Branch says it is always right.”
A copy of the documents can be found at Stamboulieh Law.
Alan Beck can be reached at: