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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 Office of the Inspector General (OIG) conducted this review to assess the effectiveness of the ATF's program for inspecting FFLs and to examine how this program assists in enforcing federal firearms laws.


The scope of this review included examining histories for firearms retailers categorized either as Type 1 or Type 2 dealers. We did not review inspection histories of FFLs issued other license types, such as those issued licenses for producing or importing firearms and ammunition, or collectors of curios or relics. We also reviewed inspection histories for FFLs whose licenses were revoked or are in the process of being revoked. Inspection histories included application information, inspection worksheets, and Inspector reports, as well as reports and memoranda related to any regulatory action taken by the ATF against the FFL. However, we reviewed the impact of all license types on inspection activities, including workload and inspection outcomes.

The ATF provided us with access to the two electronic information systems containing licensee information, inspection information, and reports - the Federal Licensing System (FLS) and N-Spect. To assist in our assessment of how ATF officials target which FFLs to inspect, the ATF also provided us with access to two electronic information systems containing information on firearms tracing - the Firearms Tracing System (FTS), and Online LEAD.


Interviews. We conducted in-person and telephone interviews with personnel from ATF Headquarters, ATF Field Divisions, United States Attorneys' Offices, law enforcement agencies (LEAs), firearms retailers, and advocacy groups. Specifically, we interviewed individuals from ATF's Firearms, Explosives and Arson Directorate, Field Operations Directorate; Office of Inspections; Office of the Chief Counsel; and National Tracing Center. We spoke with Assistant United States Attorneys (AUSAs) assigned to prosecute firearms-related offenses and to Project Safe Neighborhood Coordinators, who are the AUSAs who coordinate most firearms-related prosecutions. We spoke with law enforcement officials assigned to firearms-related cases, and to those responsible for submitting crime gun trace requests. We spoke with a statistician who has worked with National Tracing Center data. We also interviewed a California Department of Justice official responsible for overseeing that state's firearms licensee inspections program.40

We spoke with three firearms retailers; representatives from Taurus International, a firearms manufacturer; and a representative from the National Association of Firearms Retailers. We also interviewed officials from two advocacy groups - the National Rifle Association and the Brady Center to Prevent Gun Violence.

Field Site Visits. As part of our fieldwork, we interviewed personnel and reviewed FFL inspection files at four of the ATF's 23 Field Division offices - Miami, Chicago, Los Angeles, and Seattle.41 We chose these sites based on their geographic location, size, local crime trends, and distribution of firearms inspection work. While at these locations, we also interviewed local law enforcement officials and AUSAs to discuss criminal prosecutions of FFLs and related issues. We reviewed 100 randomly selected inspection files to determine when the FFL was issued a license to sell firearms, the frequency of ATF inspections, the extent and intensity of those inspections, violations detected during those inspections, and actions by ATF against the FFL.42 We also reviewed FFL files for which the ATF revoked or was in the process of revoking the FFL's license. We also observed one FFL compliance inspection.

Data. We relied on ATF electronic databases for information on FFLs, inspections, Inspector work hours, and firearms tracing data, but we noted discrepancies in the data, as detailed in the results section of this report. After discussing the data discrepancies with ATF Headquarters officials, we concluded that the N-Spect data were the most accurate information for examining the numbers of inspections conducted and the direct work hours expended for compliance and applications inspections. However, the Standard Time and Attendance System (STATS) database was the only data source available that included all staff time. We therefore used this database to analyze staffing requirements.43 We also examined the N Spect data to determine whether the variances affected our findings and confirmed that the variances in inspection productivity and implementation remained regardless of which data run we used. We used FLS to determine FFL licensing histories and N-Spect to analyze Inspector assignments and reports. We used information from the STATS and N Spect to examine Inspector workload. We used FTS to determine trace histories of firearms sold by FFLs, and Online LEAD to review potential firearms trafficking patterns.

We also collected and analyzed prosecution data from the Executive Office for United States Attorneys; ATF budget requests from FY 2002 through FY 2005; internal ATF memoranda; ATF annual and periodic reports; transcripts of congressional testimony by ATF officials; judicial decisions; General Accounting Office reports on NICS; a Congressional Research Service report on the potential of terrorist access to firearms; a University of California, Los Angeles, study; and Department of the Treasury Office of the Inspector General reports on the ATF's FFL and explosives inspection programs. Finally, we reviewed the laws and regulations applicable to the ATF's oversight of FFLs.

Area Supervisor Survey. We conducted an e-mail survey of Area Supervisors - those ATF personnel who assign FFL inspections and approve inspection reports - to determine their views on ATF's FFL inspection program, "crime gun" tracing, and Inspector resources (see Appendix II). Forty-five of 50 Area Supervisors replied by e-mail or fax, a response rate of 90 percent.


  1. California, which issues its own state firearms licenses, is one of the few states with its own licensee inspection program.

  2. We also visited the Field Division in Washington, D.C., to test our methodology and data collection instruments.

  3. We used Microsoft Excel to generate random numbers associated with FFL numbers for the Field Divisions we visited. We used FLS to generate these FFL numbers based on our inspection criteria.

  4. We also used the STATS data for examining staffing needs, since that was the data that the ATF relied on to prepare the Inspector Staffing Requirements for the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives report for the Justice Management Division and Congress.