You are watching a great episode of Law and Order and they recover a firearm from a crime scene and type the serial number into a computer and wammo up comes the name and the address of the person who is registered to that gun right? Wrong!
Generally speaking for the majority of American gun owners there is no system, database, or registry that ties us to any of our firearms. Even the Brady Act that created the background check system requires that the records of each background check be destroyed within 24 hours.
The Firearm Owners' Protection Act of 1986 (FOPA) is a United States federal law that revised many provisions of the Gun Control Act of 1968. As such, FOPA makes it illegal for the national government or any state in the country to keep any sort of database or registry that ties firearms directly to their owner. The exact wording of the provision is as follows:
No such rule or regulation prescribed [by the Attorney General] after the date of the enactment of the Firearms Owners Protection Act may require that records required to be maintained under this chapter or any portion of the contents of such records, be recorded at or transferred to a facility owned, managed, or controlled by the United States or any State or any political subdivision thereof, nor that any system of registration of firearms, firearms owners, or firearms transactions or disposition be established. Nothing in this section expands or restricts the Secretary's authority to inquire into the disposition of any firearm in the course of a criminal investigation.
A few things here are worth noting. First notice the use of the word “after” in the first sentence. Any law that existed prior to the passing of FOPA, that required guns be registered, can still exist and be legally enforced.
Second, don't forget that just because the law says something is illegal doesn't mean it isn't being done or that there is any sort of a loophole. In New York City for example, the NYPD has a record of the manufacturer, model, serial number and caliber of every firearm (handgun and long arms too). You need to have a registration certificate on your person for every long arm in addition to needing a “Permit to Possess Rifles or Shotguns In New York City” (which are limited to 5 rounds among other restrictions). Other municipalities also have a track record of ignoring the Federal Firearm Owner's Protection Act.
Local Jurisdictions that Register Guns:
States that Require Registration of All Firearms
- District of Columbia
States that Require Registration of Handguns
- New York
States that Require New Residents to Report Their Firearms
- Maryland (handguns and assault weapons)
States that Require Registration of Pre-Ban “Assault Weapons” and/or 50 Caliber Rifles
- New Jersey
- New York
Despite FOPA There Are Some Limited Government Gun Databases
In addition to the local authorities who may disregard the local law we also know that the ATF keeps at least 5 databases of specific firearms and their owners to include:
- Multiple Sale Reports. Over 460,000 (as of 2003) Multiple Sales reports (ATF F 3310.4 – a registration record with specific firearms and owner name and address – increasing by about 140,000 per year). Reported as 4.2 million records in 2010.
- Suspect Guns. All guns suspected of being used for criminal purposes but not recovered by law enforcement. This database includes (ATF's own examples), individuals purchasing large quantities of firearms, and dealers with improper record keeping. May include guns observed by law enforcement in an estate, or at a gun show, or elsewhere. Reported as 34,807 in 2010.
- Traced Guns. Over 4 million detail records from all traces since inception. This is a registration record which includes the personal information of the first retail purchaser, along with the identity of the selling dealer.
- Out of Business Records. Data is manually collected from paper Out-of-Business records (or input from computer records) and entered into the trace system by ATF. These are registration records which include name and address, make, model, serial and caliber of the firearm(s), as well as data from the 4473 form – in digital or image format. In March, 2010, ATF reported receiving several hundred million records since 1968.
- Theft Guns. Firearms reported as stolen to ATF. Contained 330,000 records in 2010. Contains only thefts from licensed dealers and interstate carriers (optional). Does not have an interface to the FBI's National Crime Information Center (NCIC) theft data base, where the majority of stolen, lost and missing firearms are reported.
To learn more about these ATF registries listen to: CCW Podcast Episode 12 The Government’s Secret Gun Owner Database
It is also worth noting that not withstanding FOPA, the National Firearms Act which was enacted in 1934 does require that certain types of firearms be registered. This includes firearms not commonly owned or acquired by average gun owners including fully automatic firearms and short barrel rifles and shotguns. Any firearm not specifically mentioned in Title II of the NFA however should not by Federal law be part of any registry tied to a gun owner.