The trace starts with a call or fax to the National Trace Center in Martinsburg, West Virginia. A police department has recovered a gun at a crime scene that was bought at a dealer that has since gone out of business. The inquiring officer turns to the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives to find out who purchased it, and when.

Federally licensed gun dealers are required to submit sales records to the ATF when they close up shop. The ATF has acquired a massive library of such records: more than 285 million, which it scans and digitizes. Those documents are saved into one of the 25 “data systems” that help the ATF source guns used in crimes.

The physical records, some 20,000 boxes, are then stashed away in the Trace Center building and in the parking lot, filling about 25 shipping containers. They are stored there to keep the floor inside from collapsing.

The good news is that agents usually don’t need to search the boxes by hand. The bad: The computerized system isn’t much better.

The ATF’s record-keeping system lacks certain basic functionalities standard to every other database created in the modern age. Despite its vast size, and importance to crime fighters, it is less sophisticated than an online card catalog maintained by a small town public library.

To perform a search, ATF investigators must find the specific index number of a former dealer, then search records chronologically for records of the exact gun they seek. They may review thousands of images in a search before they find the weapon they are looking for. That’s because dealer records are required to be “non-searchable” under federal law. Keyword searches, or sorting by date or any other field, are strictly prohibited.

The government takes making gun records difficult to search quite seriously. A Government Accountability Office report released August 1 concluded that in two data systems, the ATF did not always comply with “restrictions prohibiting consolidation or centralization” of records. The GAO, which is entrusted with ensuring that federal agencies follow the law, was essentially chiding the ATF for making it a bit easier for its hundreds of investigators to do their jobs.

Alarmed headlines from conservative publications followed. A Fox News pundit falsely claimed the report found the agency had “a list of every gun owner and every gun owned.”

Congress imposes conflicting directives on the ATF. The agency is required to trace guns, but it must use inefficient procedures and obsolete technology. Lawmakers in effect tell the agency to do a job, but badly.

At this point, you likely have some questions. The Trace is here to help.

Why are there so many dang boxes of records anyway?

Until very recently, gun dealers were prohibited from using electronic, cloud-based computing systems unless the ATF granted them specific permission to do so. As a result, many records are on index cards, water-stained paper, or, in some instances, even toilet paper and napkins.

What happens when the ATF acquires a box of records?

Investigators scan and save them as digital image files. They are like online piles of paper, or PDFs, arranged by one field only.

How can a database be “non-searchable”?

Trick question: The system can’t really be considered a database. (There is a reason the ATF uses the phrase “data systems” instead). There is no ability to search the text of a file, and no effort is made to tag files with identifiers that could later be used to sort and search. “We compare it to an electronic card catalog system, where records are digitally imaged, but not optimized for character recognition,” ATF spokesman Corey Ray says.

Why is the ATF required to trace guns, but with crappy technology?

The 1968 Gun Control Act gave the ATF authority to regulate federally licensed gun dealers. In 1978, the ATF tried to make dealers report most sales each quarter. The National Rifle Association and other groups denounced the plan, and lobbied to kill the reporting requirement. Congress did as the gun lobby requested, blocking the quarterly report proposal and reducing the ATF’s budget by $5 million: the amount the agency had sought to update its computer capacity.

“From that point on, if you even said ‘computer’ at ATF headquarters, everybody ran and hid in a closet,” says William Vizzard, a former ATF special agent and emeritus professor of criminal justice at California State University, Sacramento.

The war on searchable technology continued. In 1986, Congress enacted the Firearms Protection Act, which bans the ATF from creating a registry of guns, gun owners or gun sales.

Congress also put a rider barring the agency from “consolidation or centralization” of gun dealers’ records in every spending bill affecting the agency from 1979 through 2011, then made the prohibition permanent, under law.

Why can’t the ATF use technology 10-year-olds have in their phones?

First comes keyword searches, and the next thing you know, you have national gun registries.

That, at least, is the rationale for the law that prevents the ATF from creating a searchable system. Gun rights groups argue that once the government has a list of firearms, it could use that list to confiscate weapons from private citizens.

How did the ATF skirt the rules meant to guard against searchability?

Many ATF traces are conducted on guns sold by active dealers. The ATF gives servers to these dealers, upon request, so that they can upload sales records. This saves both parties time: The ATF can conduct a trace without contacting a dealer in every instance, and the dealer need not spend time handling ATF requests.

When a dealer with a server goes out of business, it hands over that server to the ATF. From 2000 to 2016, the ATF consolidated all the data from these defunct servers into one. But the agency is not permitted to combine records in this fashion, the GAO determined.

Chastened, the ATF deleted all 252 million records on the server.

What is the consequence of restricting the ATF’s use of data?

The ATF processes a high number of trace requests: 373,349 in 2015. The agency says a trace takes on average four to seven business days to complete.

If not for the ban on consolidating data into a searchable system, the ATF could create a database that allows it to immediately check the sales history of any gun used in a crime. The National Trace Center itself, and its 350 employees, likely would be obsolete if the ATF were permitted to create a modern, searchable database.

The ATF says the current system is adequate. “ATF considers the process in place efficient, especially when you consider that most urgent traces are completed within hours — if not minutes — of the request,” Ray says.

But Vizzard, the former ATF special agent, says that by shackling the agency, Congress hinders police investigations. “It’s a 1950s record-keeping system in 2016,” he said. “It’s as though your bank still didn’t have a computer.”

[Photo: AP/Cliff Owen]