The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosivesí National Firearms
Registration and Transfer Record

Evaluation and Inspections Report I-2007-006
June 2007
Office of the Inspector General


On June 26, 1934, Congress passed the National Firearms Act (NFA), since amended, to limit the availability of machine guns, short-barreled shotguns, short-barreled rifles, sound suppressors (silencers), and other similar weapons that were often used by criminals during the Prohibition Era.10 The NFA imposed a tax on the manufacture, import, and distribution of NFA weapons and required a registry of “all NFA firearms in the United States that were not under the control of the United States [government].”11 The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) collects the taxes and maintains NFA weapon registration records in a central registry. This central registry, called the National Firearms Registration and Transfer Record (NFRTR), consists of all registration documents, attachments to those documents, and an electronic database that includes information from many of the documents and that enables computerized searches of the registry.12

Congress expanded the scope of the NFA through the Gun Control Act (GCA) of 1968 to include destructive devices (e.g., explosive and incendiary bombs, flash bang grenades, and weapons with a bore of greater than one-half inch in diameter), machine gun frames or receivers, and conversion kits for machine guns.13 The GCA restricts registrations of NFA weapons to only makers, manufacturers, and importers.14 Private citizens or individuals who meet eligibility under the NFA are allowed to purchase, sell, possess, and transfer only previously registered NFA weapons. Further, the GCA called for a 30-day amnesty period ending December 1, 1968, where anyone possessing an NFA weapon could register the weapon without consequence. However, any NFA weapon not registered during the amnesty is considered contraband, cannot be registered, and must be forfeited or voluntarily surrendered to ATF. On May 19, 1986, Congress passed the Firearms Owners’ Protection Act to prohibit possession of machine guns that were not legally possessed prior to its enactment. Thus, the Firearms Owners’ Protection Act allowed newly manufactured machine guns to be available only to the U.S. government (such as the U.S. military) and law enforcement entities after May 19, 1986.

NFA weapons must be registered with the NFRTR, and whenever ownership is transferred (through sale, rental, gift, or bequest) the transfer must be approved in advance by ATF and then updated in the registry. A registrant is required to retain the approved NFA weapons application form as proof of a weapon’s registration and make it available to ATF upon request.15 Manufacturers, importers, and makers of NFA weapons also are required to register each newly made, manufactured, or imported weapon. Law enforcement agencies are allowed to register weapons that have been seized or voluntarily surrendered to the U.S. government.

As of November 2006, the NFRTR contained registrations for 1,906,786 weapons. The total number of weapons included 1,186,138 destructive devices, 391,532 machine guns, 150,364 silencers, 95,699 short barreled shotguns, 33,518 short barreled rifles, 48,443 weapons categorized as “any other weapons,” and 1,082 “unknown” devices or weapons not classified in the other categories.16 Figure 1 illustrates the breakdown of the weapons in the NFRTR.

Figure 1: Weapons in the NFRTR as of November 2006

Destructive Devices-62.2%, Machine Guns-20.5%, Silencers-7.9%, Short-barreled Shotguns-5.0%, Short-barreled Rifles-1.8%, Any other weapon-2.5%, Unknown and N/A-0.1%.

Source: ATF, NFRTR data

Each record in the NFRTR contains the make, model, and serial number of the weapon, the date of its registration, and the name and address of the person entitled to possess the weapon. Each record also includes the transaction history for the weapon. For weapons registered prior to 1983, the NFRTR contains record entries of the three most recent transactions.17 After 1983, the records contain all transactions. Another database linked to the NFRTR database contains electronic images of the related application forms for both pre- and post-1983 registered weapons.

Possessing an unregistered NFA weapon or one that is registered to someone else is punishable by a $250,000 fine and 10 years imprisonment.18 The NFA weapon is subject to forfeiture, and if convicted of a criminal violation of the NFA the possessor will be prohibited from receiving or possessing firearms.19

In 2006, ATF seized 3,030 NFA weapons, including 1,280 machine guns, 550 sawed-off shotguns and rifles, 571 silencers, 415 destructive devices, and 214 devices categorized as “any other weapons.” These totals included unregistered NFA weapons seized during criminal investigations as well as registered and unregistered NFA weapons seized as a result of compliance inspections of federal firearms licensees.

ATF’s NFA Branch

The NFA Branch, under ATF’s Firearms and Explosives Services Division, Office of Enforcement Programs and Services, maintains the NFRTR and processes applications, requests for information, and notices associated with the manufacture, registration, transfer, and transportation of NFA weapons. In 2006, the NFA Branch processed and entered 402,151 NFA weapons applications forms into the NFRTR. The NFA Branch assists registrants of NFA weapons and members of the firearms industry in complying with federal law and regulations regarding the possession, transport, and transfer of NFA weapons; reports of loss or theft of an NFA weapon or registration document; and other issues regarding changes concerning NFA weapons registration. Additionally, the NFA Branch conducts queries of the NFRTR to support compliance inspections and criminal investigations.

NFA Branch Staffing and Duties

In 2005, NFA Branch operations relocated to Martinsburg, West Virginia, from Washington, D.C., leaving only the Program Manager at ATF headquarters. As of March 2007, the NFA Branch had a staff of 20 ATF personnel and 12 contractors. The NFA Branch is authorized to have a complement of 16 Examiners, 8 Specialists, 1 Special Occupational Tax (SOT) Specialist, and 1 Information Technology (IT) Specialist. As of March 2007, it had only 10 Examiners, 4 Specialists, 1 SOT Specialist, and 1 IT Specialist. Also, 1 of the 10 Examiners was working in ATF’s Explosives Licensing Center due to a staffing shortage in that organization, and 1 of the 4 Specialists was detailed to ATF headquarters. Table 1 shows the staffing levels and summarizes the duties of each position.

Table 1: NFA Branch Staffing Levels as of March 2007

Position Number of Employees on Board Number of Employees Authorized Duties

    ATF Personnel

Branch Chief



Supervises the NFA Branch. Decides policy and program changes.

Section Chief



Supervises Legal Instrument Examiners.

Program Manager (Washington, D.C.)



Advises the Branch Chief and other officials on policy decisions, NFA Branch program direction, and proposed changes to the NFRTR system.




Performs records checks and produces inventory reports for ATF Special Agents and IOIs. (One Specialist is detailed to ATF headquarters.)

Special Occupational Tax (SOT) Specialist



Reviews and processes SOT applications and renewals.

Legal Instrument Examiner



Processes NFA applications. (One Examiner works in ATF’s Explosives Licensing Center due to a staffing shortage.)

IT Specialist



Develops additional queries of the NFRTR, develops methods to fix errors in the NFRTR, and tracks Branch productivity.


Data Entry Clerk



Enters application data from paper forms into NFRTR.

Imaging Contractor (National Tracing Center)



Scans and indexes NFRTR documents into an electronic imaging database.

Customer Service Representative



Receives NFA-related phone calls and answers questions from the NFA community and ATF field offices.

Source: ATF

Figure 2 shows the structure of the NFA Branch as of March 2007.

Figure 2: NFA Branch Organizational Chart

[Image Not Available Electronically]

Note: ATF’s National Tracing Center – which traces the history of recovered crime guns for federal, state, local, and international enforcement agencies – manages an imaging services contract for all ATF branches.

NFA Weapon Registration Process

To register a new NFA weapon or transfer a registered NFA weapon, applicants must complete an ATF application form and submit it to the NFA Branch for review and approval. Only licensed manufacturers, licensed importers, or makers of NFA weapons may register an NFA weapon. Private citizens can apply for a transfer of a previously registered NFA weapon if the transfer is by sale, gift, or bequest. The NFA Branch staff receives NFA weapons application forms, checks them for completeness, and enters the transaction information into the NFRTR. NFA Branch Examiners check the information in the database against the paper applications for accuracy and verify the applicants’ compliance with state and federal regulations. If an application is incomplete or incorrect, the Examiner sends a correction letter to the applicant and allows 30 days for the applicant to submit additional information. If the application is approved, the Examiner retains a copy for the NFA Branch records and sends the original application back to the applicant, who is required to maintain it as proof of registration. The copied forms are “imaged” into an electronic database by contractors and then stored in the NFA Branch archives. See Appendix I for a full list of NFA application forms and transaction processes.

NFA Weapons Records Checks and Inventory Report Requests

NFA Branch Specialists respond to requests for records checks and inventory reports from ATF Special Agents and Industry Operations Investigators (IOI).20 IOIs request NFA weapons inventory reports as part of compliance inspections they conduct of federal firearms licensees. Special Agents submit request forms for records checks of NFA weapons owners or specific NFA weapons related to their investigations. An NFA Branch Specialist searches the NFRTR database using multiple queries to find the record for the individual or weapon and returns a search report to the Agent.

Funding for NFRTR Improvements

In fiscal year (FY) 2001, Congress appropriated $2 million for management and technical improvements at ATF’s NFA Branch, Firearms and Explosives Imports Branch, and National Licensing Center.21 ATF used this funding for system development activities to consolidate and standardize separate information technology (IT) systems, streamline IT processes, and improve information access and usefulness for both ATF and the public.22 In FY 2002, Congress provided another $2 million to ATF for the three branches and also provided $500,000 specifically to improve the NFRTR. To reduce processing time for NFRTR transactions, ATF used the funding to support imaging and indexing records within the NFRTR and linking the records to a retrieval system.23 ATF also used the funds to develop the requirements document for an electronic filing system for three NFA forms and the prototype system and to modify the prototype based on feedback received from the NFA weapons industry.

  1. 26 U.S.C. § 5845 (1986).

  2. 26 U.S.C. § 5845. NFA applicants must pay a $200 tax each time they make or transfer an NFA weapon. Further, manufacturers, importers, and dealers must pay a Special Occupational Tax (SOT) to do business in NFA weapons and are licensed as Special Occupational Taxpayers. Manufacturers and importers are taxed $1,000 each year and dealers are taxed $500.

  3. The NFRTR was automated in 1983.

  4. The GCA also defined the term “firearm” to exclude antique firearms or any devices (excluding machine guns and destructive devices) that could be classified as collectors’ items. 26 U.S.C. § 5845. Flash bang grenades are non-lethal, pyrotechnic distraction devices used by law enforcement agencies, the military, and movie and television productions. Receivers can convert a semi-automatic weapon into an automatic weapon firing multiple shots with on function of the trigger.

  5. NFA weapons makers are unlicensed individuals who usually make one weapon at a time for individual use. NFA weapons manufacturers are licensed to manufacture weapons for sale and pay an annual Special Occupational Tax.

  6. 26 U.S.C. § 5841(e).

  7. Of the 1,186,138 destructive devices in the NFRTR, 77.4 percent (918,517) are flash bang grenades. The category “unknown” includes older weapons or devices registered with ATF before the NFRTR was automated that are not clearly identified or do not fit in any other category of weapon. According to 26 U.S.C. § 5845 (1986), “ any other weapon” means “any weapon or device capable of being concealed on the person from which a shot can be discharged through the energy of an explosive, a pistol or revolver having a barrel with a smooth bore designed or redesigned to fire a fixed shotgun shell, weapons with combination shotgun and rifle barrels 12 inches or more, less than 18 inches in length, from which only a single discharge can be made from either barrel without manual reloading, and shall include any such weapon which may be readily restored to fire. Such term shall not include a pistol or a revolver having a rifled bore, or rifled bores, or weapons designed, made, or intended to be fired from the shoulder and not capable of firing fixed ammunition.”

  8. When the NFRTR was automated in 1983, the NFA Branch chose to focus on entering all transaction information for newly registered weapons, so NFA Branch staff entered only the three most recent records for each NFA weapon registered prior to 1983. A full transaction history of a pre-1983 weapon is available in the imaging database, which contains scanned copies of original application forms. All transactions of an NFA weapon registered after 1983 are entered into the NFRTR.

  9. 26 U.S.C. § 5871, 18 U.S.C. § 3571.

  10. 26 U.S.C. § 5872, 18 U.S.C. § 922(g)(1).

  11. IOIs conduct inspections of federal firearms licensees for compliance with federal firearms laws and regulations.

  12. The Firearms and Explosives Imports Branch reviews and processes applications for the importation of firearms, ammunition, and explosives into the United States. The National Licensing Center, now called the Federal Firearms Licensing Center, reviews and processes applications for federal firearms licenses. The center also maintains a searchable federal firearms licensee database.

  13. House Report 107-152.

  14. House Report 107-152.

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