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Inspections of Firearms Dealers by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives

Report Number I-2004-005
July 2004


The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) enforces federal firearms laws and regulations, including issuing licenses and overseeing Federal Firearms Licensees (FFLs) and most explosives licensees and permittees. The ATF enforces federal firearms laws, in part, by conducting regulatory inspections of FFLs. These inspections examine whether FFLs are keeping proper records and are taking proper steps to avoid selling firearms to prohibited persons (see inset).

Individuals Prohibited
From Purchasing Firearms

Individuals prohibited by federal law from possessing a firearm include anyone who:

  1. has been convicted of a crime punishable by more than one year in prison;
  2. is a fugitive from justice;
  3. unlawfully uses controlled substances;
  4. has been adjudicated as mentally defective;
  5. is an illegal alien, or an alien admitted to the United States under a nonimmigrant visa;
  6. has been dishonorably discharged from the Armed Forces;
  7. has renounced his or her American citizenship;
  8. is a subject of a court order that restrains the person from harassing, stalking, or threatening an intimate partner; or
  9. has been convicted of a misdemeanor crime of domestic violence.

Individuals under indictment for a crime punishable by more than one year of prison are prohibited from receiving a firearm, but may lawfully possess a firearm they obtained before being indicted.

Source: Title 18 U.S.C. Chapter 44

FFL Licensing and Operational Requirements

To obtain a license for making or selling firearms, applicants must be at least 21 years old and not prohibited from possessing firearms. Applicants are required to notify the chief officer of their local law enforcement agency (LEA) that they intend to apply for a license, and must submit a photograph and a full set of fingerprints with their applications, as well as a statement certifying that their business is in compliance with all state and local laws (including zoning laws). Application examiners at the ATF National Licensing Center (NLC) in Atlanta, Georgia, determine the eligibility of applicants for Federal Firearms Licenses.13 Fees for federal firearms dealer licenses are $200 for the first three years and $90 for each three-year renewal period. As of December 2003, there were approximately 104,300 FFLs in the United States, including approximately 65,700 retailers.14

Each year, FFLs conduct more than 8.5 million firearms sales.15 To reduce the availability of firearms to criminals, FFLs are required to verify that potential customers are not prohibited from possessing a firearm and to verify that customers are residents of the state in which the FFL is located. FFLs must verify the identity of potential customers by examining a government-issued identification document, such as a driver's license, and have the customer complete a Form 4473, Firearms Transaction Record, which captures data related to the purchaser and firearm(s) purchased (see Appendix I). The FFLs also contact the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) or a statewide LEA to request that the National Instant Criminal Background Check System (NICS) be queried to confirm that the potential customers are not prohibited from purchasing firearms.16 Most NICS queries result in an immediate response to the FFL regarding purchaser eligibility. In cases where an immediate response is not given, FFLs are allowed to complete the transaction after three business days if NICS is unable to complete the check within that time. If the purchaser is later determined to be prohibited from possessing a gun, the ATF seeks to remove the gun from the purchaser's possession.17

Federal law requires that FFLs maintain completed Forms 4473, as well as a log of all firearms that they have acquired and sold, known as an Acquisition and Disposition Book (A&D Book). The A&D Book must contain information including a description of the firearm, the name and address of the person from whom the firearm was acquired and, once sold, the name and address of the purchaser and the date the gun was sold. 18 FFLs also are required to report sales of multiple handguns to the same purchaser.19 Combined, these record-keeping requirements are intended to deter the illegal transfer of firearms to prohibited persons.

The records kept by FFLs also enable the ATF to trace firearms recovered by LEAs to learn when those firearms were purchased and by whom. According to the ATF, less than 5 percent of firearms are used in violent crimes by the person who originally purchased the gun from an FFL. Guns used in violent crime are generally acquired through a secondary market of traffickers and "straw purchasers" (individuals that buy firearms for prohibited individuals).20 Nonetheless, tracing is a significant investigative tool because it can provide investigators leads to the subsequent purchaser(s) of the firearm.

The ATF's FFL Inspection Program

The ATF's FFL inspection program uses a cadre of Inspectors to verify that FFLs are complying with federal firearms laws and that tracing data provided by FFLs are accurate and timely. The Inspectors do not have the authority to arrest individuals, do not carry firearms, and do not conduct criminal or undercover investigations. Before the enactment of the Homeland Security Act of 2002, the ATF had 567 Inspectors.21 As directed by the Homeland Security Act, in February 2003 the tax and regulatory responsibilities of the ATF were split, and most regulatory functions were transferred from the Department of the Treasury to the Department of Justice.22 The new title of the agency within the Department of Justice became the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives. As of August 2003, the ATF had 498 Inspectors. Of the 498 Inspectors, approximately 420 were assigned to Industry Operations groups located throughout the ATF's 23 Field Divisions. The remaining Inspectors were assigned to the ATF Headquarters and various management positions.

A typical ATF Field Division structure included a Special Agent In Charge to oversee the operations of the office, a Director of Industry Operations (DIO), and two or three Area Offices, which were managed by an Area Supervisor. Most Field Divisions also had at least one Senior Operations Inspector to assist with large-scale FFL inspections (Figure 1).

Figure 1: Field Division Organization Chart

Organization Chart showing the Field Divisions.  Tier 1 box at top - Special Agent in Charge (Field Division). Tier 2 box branches off of Tier 1 - Director of Industry Operations. Tier 3 boxes branches off of Tier 2 contains 3 boxes with the same info - Area Supervisor (Area Office). Tier 4 branches off of Tier 3 contains 3 boxes with the same info - Inspectors.  Sub tier 3 branches off of Tier 2- Special Operations Inspector.
Source: ATF Field Operations Directorate

To implement the FFL inspection program, ATF Inspectors conduct four different types of inspections:

According to the ATF's published reports and draft reports provided to the OIG, Inspectors conducted 5,497 application inspections during fiscal year FY 2001, 7,229 application inspections in FY 2002, and 8,422 application inspections in FY 2003. The ATF has also reported that Inspectors conducted 5,016 compliance inspections in FY 2001, 5,802 compliance inspections in FY 2002, and 6,481 compliance inspections in FY 2003 (Figure 2).25

Bar chart showing the reported FFL Inspection Totals FY 2001 to FY 2003.  In 2001, there were 5,497 Application Inspections and 5,016 Compliance, Renewal, and Limited Purpose Inspections. In 2002, there were 7,229 Application Inspections and 5,802 Compliance, Renewal, and Limited Purpose Inspections. In 2003, there were 8,422 Application Inspections and 6,481 Compliance, Renewal, and Limited Purpose Inspections.
Source: Firearms in Commerce in the United States 2001/2002, ATF 2003 Performance and Accountability Report, ATF Firearms Programs Division.

The ATF's Regulatory Enforcement Actions

When the ATF finds that an FFL has violated the Gun Control Act or its implementing regulations, it may take one of several actions.26 For minor infractions (e.g., missing ZIP code on a Form 4473), the FFL may be given a Report of Violations, which notifies the FFL of violations that should be corrected. For more serious infractions, the FFL may be sent a warning letter, or it may be directed to attend a warning conference. At a warning conference, an FFL is notified that it must correct its practices or lose its license. For severe or repeat violations deemed willful, the ATF may revoke or deny renewal of the FFL's license.

FFL Education Efforts

In addition to regulatory enforcement, the ATF educates FFLs and others on federal firearms laws through seminars and programs. In FY 2002, the ATF conducted 183 "commodity seminars" for FFLs, LEAs, and the public. At many of these seminars, the ATF supplied FFLs with the "Don't Lie For the Other Guy" packet prepared by the National Shooting Sports Foundation. The packet includes a poster, pamphlet, and a videotape to help FFLs identify firearms traffickers. As of October 2003, approximately 23,000 FFLs had received the packet.

The revocation process begins when an ATF Inspector recommends revocation because of severe or repeated violations. If the Area Supervisor approves the Inspector's recommendation, the inspection report and supporting documentation are submitted to the DIO. After consulting with the Division Counsel, the DIO can issue an Initial Notice of Revocation. If an Initial Notice of Revocation is issued, the FFL has 15 days to appeal the proposed revocation and request a hearing. Revocation hearings are conducted in the field by ATF Inspectors who are specially trained to act as Hearing Officers. As of September 1, 2003, 23 Inspectors served as Hearing Officers as a collateral duty to their regular tasks and 11 additional Inspectors had completed training to become Hearing Officers. Hearing Officers are assigned from Field Divisions other than the Divisions proposing the revocation. At the hearing, the Hearing Officer examines the facts and hears testimony from the ATF and the FFL. After the hearing, the Hearing Officer prepares a report of findings and recommendations for the DIO.

After receiving the Hearing Officer's report, the DIO can allow the FFL to retain his license, or issue a Final Notice of Revocation. If a Final Notice of Revocation is issued, the FFL has 60 days to appeal the revocation to U.S. District Court. If the FFL appeals, the ATF routinely submits a Motion for Summary Judgment asking the Court to uphold the agency's determination.

In FY 2002, Inspectors conducted 25 revocation hearings. Of those, 22 resulted in the revocation of the FFL's license. The number of revocation hearings increased to 87 during FY 2003.27

Other than issuing warning letters, holding warning conferences, and revoking licenses, the ATF has few enforcement options. As of March 2004, the ATF had very limited authority to impose fines and suspend an FFL's license.28 This limited authority can occur only under a specific circumstance where an FFL failed to conduct a NICS check and, had the check been conducted, it would have discovered that the customer was a prohibited person. As an alternative to revoking licenses, as of March 2004 the ATF's General Counsel was seeking, through the Department of Justice Office of Legislative Affairs, the authority to suspend or fine FFLs who violate firearms laws.

The ATF Firearms Tracing Program

In 1994, the ATF consolidated its tracing activities at the National Tracing Center (NTC) in Falling Waters, West Virginia. The NTC traces the purchase histories of "crime guns" recovered by federal, state, local, and international LEAs.29 The ATF defines a "crime gun" as any firearm that is "illegally possessed, used in a crime, or suspected by law enforcement officials" of having been used during the commission of a crime. Crime gun tracing data can identify potential firearms trafficking and unlawful business practices by FFLs. The ATF has the following tracing-based indicators of firearms trafficking:

In requesting a trace of a crime gun, an LEA supplies the ATF with information including the make, model, serial number, and other identifying characteristics of the gun and the circumstances of its recovery.31 Using that information, an ATF analyst contacts the manufacturer of the firearm to determine which FFL purchased the gun. The analyst then contacts the FFL identified by the manufacturer to obtain information on the retail purchaser from the appropriate Form 4473 and A&D Book entry. FFLs are required by law to respond to firearms trace requests from the ATF within 24 hours.32 According to the NTC Director, the NTC performed 232,272 firearms traces in FY 2001, 240,651 firearms traces in FY 2002, and 280,947 firearms traces in FY 2003.33 The NTC defines a successful trace as one in which the initial retail purchaser of the crime gun is identified. According to the NTC Director, 50 to 60 percent of traces requested in FY 2003 succeeded.

Trace data can be categorized to identify those guns that are most often used in crime. For example, in 2000 the Smith & Wesson .38 caliber revolver was the most frequently traced firearm recovered by LEAs.34 Using trace information, the NTC offers several analytical products to LEAs, such as:

Demand Letter Programs. Because some FFLs either ignored trace data requests or were unable to provide NTC analysts with purchaser information from Forms 4473 and their A&D Books, the ATF initiated the Demand Letter I Program in February 2000. The Demand Letter I Program covers FFLs deemed "Uncooperative" by NTC officials because they failed to provide the ATF with purchaser information. FFLs deemed "Uncooperative" are required to submit all Forms 4473 for the previous three years and to continue to submit these Forms on a monthly basis until the ATF determines that they are cooperating. Forty-one FFLs were originally placed in this category. As of April 2004, no FFLs were designated as uncooperative.

Also in February 2000, the ATF initiated the Demand Letter II Program to address FFLs with frequent short time-to-crime traces. The Demand Letter II Program requires FFLs with 15 or more traces of guns within 3 years of initial purchase to submit information quarterly on previously owned firearms acquired from non-FFLs. Originally, 430 FFLs were placed in this category.36 As of April 2004, 271 FFLs were in this category. The actual "Demand Letter" sent to FFLs states that if the FFLs do not respond to the NTC's requests for firearms tracing information, the FFLs' licenses could be revoked. The NTC forwards lists of FFLs subjected to either Demand Letter program to ATF Field Divisions on an annual basis.

Firearms Trafficking Analysis. The ATF's Crime Gun Analysis Branch (CGAB), co-located with the NTC in West Virginia, analyzes data from crime gun traces, multiple sales, and firearms thefts, and provides firearms trafficking analysis to Inspectors, Special Agents, and LEAs. The CGAB uses crime gun data maintained by the NTC to focus on specific U.S. geographic areas in which firearms trace patterns indicate firearms trafficking.37 For example, CGAB analyzes tracing data to determine the geographic areas where crime guns were recovered, a process known as geo-mapping. This information is shared with LEAs, to enable them to better focus their law enforcement activities.

The CGAB also develops numerous statistical and informational products. For example, "master queries" of all crime guns traced nationwide (grouped by county) can be used to identify FFLs that should be inspected. The "NTC Weekly Queries of FTS Data," disseminated to all users of the CGAB's electronic database, shows "firearms trafficking indicators," such as firearms purchased as part of a multiple sale. The CGAB also develops investigative leads that are researched and forwarded to the appropriate ATF Field Division, and it provides information and support to promote the tracing of all recovered crime guns by LEAs across the United States. Finally, the CGAB monitors and forwards to ATF agents information on theft reports, firearms traces, and multiple sale transactions from FFLs that are under investigation.

In FY 2002, CGAB provided firearms tracing data for 1,639 FFLs and completed 46 geo-mapping projects for ATF Field Divisions (see Figure 3 on page 13). The CGAB also researched and forwarded 138 referrals to ATF Field Divisions for potential investigations based on accumulated firearms tracing data, and was given authority over ATF's program to "raise" obliterated serial numbers on recovered firearms.38

Regional Crime Gun Centers. In 1996, the ATF began to establish Regional Crime Gun Centers (RCGC) in cities in which gun violence presented a significant public risk and high amounts of crime guns were recovered. Before the establishment of the RCGCs, the NTC's ability to provide crime gun analysis for these areas and the rest of the country was, according to the NTC Director, "limited" compared to the micro-analysis conducted at RCGCs. The NTC now oversees RCGCs in Chicago, Los Angeles, New York, and Washington, D.C.39 The RCGCs are organizationally part of the local ATF Field Division and serve as a liaison and local analysis unit for crime gun tracing for local LEAs.

Disclaimer on the use of firearms tracing data: Section 630 of the Fiscal Year 2004 Consolidated Appropriations Act mandates that the ATF and all federal government agencies which use trace data in a report clearly state the shortcomings of trace data, as follows:

Firearm traces are designed to assist law enforcement authorities in conducting investigations by tracking the sale and possession of specific firearms. Law enforcement agencies may request firearms traces for any reason, and those reasons are not necessarily reported to the federal government. Not all firearms used in crime are traced and not all firearms traced are used in crime. Firearms selected for tracing are not chosen for purposes of determining which types, makes or models of firearms are used for illicit purposes. The firearms selected do not constitute a random sample and should not be considered representative of the larger universe of all firearms used by criminals, or any subset of that universe. Firearms are normally traced to the first retail seller, and sources reported for firearms traced do not necessarily represent the sources or methods by which firearms in general are acquired for use in crime.

Figure 3: Sample ATF Gun Recovery Geo-Map

[Not available electronically]

Source: ATF Southern California Regional Crime Gun Center.


  1. The NLC maintains the Federal Licensing System (FLS) database and is the official repository of firearms and explosives inspection reports. Certain information from inspection reports is captured in the FLS, including dates of inspections and past regulatory enforcement actions taken against FFLs. The NLC also oversees the ATF's Hearing Officer program for conducting adverse action hearings involving FFLs.

  2. Firearms retailers are issued either Type 1 (storefront retailer) or Type 2 (pawnshop) federal firearms licenses. Other types of FFLs include manufacturers and importers of firearms or ammunition, ammunition dealers, and collectors of curios or relics. Largely as a result of increases in license fees and the ATF's requirement that all FFLs comply with state and local zoning laws, the FFL population has decreased from a high of more than 286,000 in March 2000.

  3. "Federal Bureau of Investigation National Instant Criminal Background Check System 2001/2002 Operational Report," FBI Publication, May 2003.

  4. The Brady Handgun Violence Prevention Act, Public Law 103-159, Title 18 U.S.C. § 922(s). The NICS, operated by the FBI, was created to facilitate the required background checks. FFLs can also query NICS via the Internet, through the FBI's NICS E-Check system.

  5. ATF Special Agents attempt to remove the firearm from the prohibited person's possession by informing the purchaser of his or her "prohibited status" and offering options for them to surrender the firearm. Options include returning the firearm to the FFL that sold it, transferring the firearm to a non-prohibited third party, or surrendering the firearm to an LEA.

  6. If a firearm is obtained from another FFL, the FFL receiving the firearm can enter the other licensee's FFL number instead of the name and address of the previous owner. Sales must be recorded in the A&D Book within seven days from the time the Form 4473 is completed.

  7. According to Title 18 U.S.C. § 923(g), an FFL must submit a "Report of Multiple Sale or Other Disposition of Pistols and Revolvers," to the ATF if an individual purchases more than one handgun within a period of five consecutive business days.

  8. An unlicensed individual may sell a firearm to an unlicensed resident of his or her State, if the buyer is not prohibited by law from receiving or possessing a firearm, or to a licensee in any State (Title 18 U.S.C. § 922).

  9. Testimony of ATF Director Bradley Buckles to the Senate Committee on the Judiciary, June 11, 2002.

  10. The Act created the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau (TTB) within the Department of the Treasury to administer and enforce existing federal laws and tax code provisions related to alcohol and tobacco products. According to the ATF, about 60 Inspectors and 19 attorneys accepted positions at the TTB. As a result of a Memorandum of Agreement between the ATF and the TTB, an additional 40 Inspectors were detailed from the ATF to the TTB for seven months, from March through September 2003.

  11. A collector's license enables individuals to make interstate sales and purchases of firearms classified by the ATF as curios and relics to facilitate a personal firearms collection.

  12. Firearms Owners Protection Act of 1986, Public Law 99-308, Title 18 U.S.C. Chapter 44.

  13. As described in the results section of this report, inspection data in the ATF's inspection tracking database do not support these published numbers. According to the inspections database, ATF Inspectors conducted 5,729 application inspections and 4,035 compliance inspections in FY 2001; 8,123 application inspections and 4,581 compliance inspections in FY 2002; and 8,043 application inspections and 5,887 compliance inspections in FY 2003, rather than the previously reported totals.

  14. In the context of the Gun Control Act, willfulness is the intentional disregard of, or plain indifference to, legal obligations (Title 18 U.S.C. § 924). It can be demonstrated through repeat violations (especially where there was notification of prior violations) or large numbers of violations. Sometimes one egregious violation, such as a straw sale to a prohibited person, can demonstrate willfulness (ATF B 5370.1 p.2).

  15. As of March 1, 2004, most of these cases were still pending.

  16. Title 18 U.S.C. § 922 states "the Attorney General may, after notice and opportunity for a hearing, suspend for not more than 6 months or revoke any license issued to the licensee under Section 923, and may impose on the licensee a civil fine of not more than $5,000."

  17. International trace requests are received directly from foreign law enforcement agencies via fax or through electronic transmission from ATF Country Attaché offices in Colombia, Mexico, and Canada. From January 1, 2003, to March 31, 2003, NTC traced 8,108 firearms for foreign governments.

  18. "Crime Gun Trace Reports (2000)," ATF, July 2002.

  19. Each firearm made in or imported to the United States must possess a serial number "which may not be readily removed, obliterated, or altered" and must be unique to each firearms manufacturer or importer.

  20. Title 18 U.S.C. § 923(g)(7).

  21. The Youth Crime Gun Interdiction Initiative (YCGII) program, currently operating in 60 cities, is the ATF's major initiative to encourage LEAs to trace recovered firearms. The program has been successful at increasing the number of firearms trace requests submitted to the ATF by LEAs participating in the program. To join the YCGII program, LEAs must sign a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) with the ATF in which the LEAs agree to make comprehensive firearms tracing a "primary goal and objective" of their agencies. The ATF funds FFL inspections in these cities through YCGII appropriations.

  22. "Crime Gun Trace Reports (2000)," ATF, July 2002.

  23. By law, FFLs are required to provide their firearms transaction records to NTC when they go out of business (Title 18 U.S.C. § 923(g)(4)). The NTC is the only federal repository for this data.

  24. Originally, FFLs with ten or more short time-to-crime traces were included in this category.

  25. The CGAB is a unit of the Intelligence Programs Division, which is under the Office of Strategic Intelligence and Information.

  26. "CGAB Performance Indicators," FY 2002.

  27. We visited RCGCs in Chicago and Los Angeles during our fieldwork. At a third field site, in Miami, ATF personnel told us that the Miami Field Division is establishing a "gun intelligence center" similar to a RCGC.