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The Business of Guns

Gun Stores Finally Won Approval to Keep Digital Records Without First Asking Permission

Frustrated sellers pushed the ATF to let them into the 21st century.

More than 76,000 gun merchants in the United States are no longer required to ask special permission to use computers to keep track of their most basic business functions: sales and inventory.

Under a new rule that took effect April 29, federally licensed firearm dealers, known as FFLs, may now maintain records electronically without first receiving approval from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives. Dealers will also be permitted to use inexpensive cloud-based computing systems to manage their records for the first time. They previously were required to maintain their own servers if they wanted to go electronic.

“ATF, at the urging of numerous [dealers], is formally acknowledging the benefits and the added efficiency of electronic record keeping,” Corey Ray, an ATF spokesman, tells The Trace.

The policy changes mark the culmination of a long, slow effort by the ATF to bring gun dealers in line with standard business practices used by rest of the retail world, and to make the agency’s job simpler, and more efficient.

Many sellers still rely on handwritten “bound books” to manage their businesses. As a result, federal agents tracing a firearm used in a crime must often travel to a retailer and manually thumb through paper records, a delay that can hamper investigations. Electronic record systems should also make routine dealer inspections faster and easier.

But the driving force behind the policy change wasn’t the ATF — it was dealers, frustrated by what they saw as an overly burdensome process for adopting standard 21st-century business practices.

Gun dealers like Wes Morosky say electronic records are much easier to maintain, and more efficient to use, than paper logs. His shop, Duke’s Sport Shop in New Castle, Pennsylvania, made the switch in late 2014, after gaining the ATF’s approval.

“It used to take days to look up records,” says Morosky. “Now you can do it in a couple of keystrokes.”

The ATF has technically allowed licensed dealers to use computers to log sales and manage stock for decades, but for much of that time it required stores to meet the agency’s vague guidelines in order to win approval. In 2008, after dealers complained, the ATF issued more specific criteria outlining how to win approval for shifting to an electronic record keeping system. But even then, dealers were required to petition the ATF for permission, a cumbersome process that many sellers decided was too much of a hassle.

It used to take days to look up records. Now you can do it in a couple of keystrokes.”

Wes Morosky

President, Duke’s Sport Shop

Ray, the ATF spokesman, says that the agency does not know how many dealers use electronic systems, and how many still use paper records. But the new rule seems likely to spur many in the latter category to go digital.

Morosky, of Duke’s Sports, says that most other dealers he has spoken with at conventions are enthusiastic about using electronic records, but have been worried about the cost and hassle. He says allowing gun dealers to use cloud-based systems to keep track of stock is seen as especially welcome.

“It’s expensive to set up your own server, a lot of work to input records on several thousand guns,” he says.

Several other industries that must maintain extensive, private records have only recently started transitioning to electronic systems. A federal study of hospitals found that as of 2008, less than 10 percent stored health records electronically, despite the fact that the technology has existed since the 1970s. In 2009, Congress passed the Health Information Technology for Economic and Clinical Health Act. By 2014, more than 75 percent of hospitals maintained basic electronic health records.

[Photo: Dayna Smith/The Washington Post/Getty Images]