How Gun Laws Affect The ATF

How Gun Laws Affect The ATF

WBEZ brings you fact-based news and information. Sign up for our newsletters to stay up to date on the stories that matter.

When Chicago cops find a gun at the crime scene, they can ask the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) to trace it back to the first person who bought it. 

But Chicago Police Superintendent Eddie Johnson said what his detectives really need is a better way to trace guns. That kind of national gun registry doesn’t exist because lawmakers in Washington have made it illegal. 

The ATF is the only agency in the country authorized to trace a gun, but current laws allow its agents to find only the original owner. And because the gun industry doesn’t have to tell the ATF what guns it makes, the federal government doesn’t even know how many guns are in the country. 

This timeline traces major U.S. gun laws, and how they have helped — and hindered — law enforcement over time.


The right to bear arms is established

The Second Amendment to the United States Constitution was crafted as a check on the federal government’s military power, to address the young nation’s worries of government tyranny.In order to prevent a corrupt government from encroaching on states’ rights — or attempting a military takeover — it was decreed that “the right of the people to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed.”

Gun dealers must be licensed and keep records

During the pre-fingerprinting, pre-police radio days, gangsters could easily ditch their guns at the scene. With organized crime on the rise, the Federal Firearms Act of 1938 was a government response that imposed a licensing requirement on gun manufacturers and dealers. The law also imposed the first record-keeping requirement on licensees.

Gun Control Act strengthens government oversight

After the shooting assassinations of John F. Kennedy and Martin Luther King Jr., there was a push for more federal oversight of the firearms industry. “If guns are to be kept out of the hands of the criminal, out of the hands of the insane, and out of the hands of the irresponsible, then we must have licensing,” Lyndon B. Johnson said when he signed the Gun Control Act into law. The act, which repealed the Federal Firearms Act but kept many of its provisions, gave the federal government the right to trace guns used in crimes to their original purchasers and gave teeth to enforcement of records-keeping requirements.

The ATF is born

The Alcohol and Tobacco Tax Division of the Internal Revenue Service, which was put in charge of enforcing the Gun Control Act, was renamed the Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms Division in 1969. In 1972, the agency became an independent federal bureau, and was renamed the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms. The same year, the ATF officially assumed responsibility for all domestic and international gun traces. The ATF National Tracing Center, the sole firearms tracing center in the country, was created in Martinsburg, West Virginia.

The ATF meets backlash

In an effort to meet quotas and enforce licensing requirements, the ATF tried to require manufacturers and dealers to report gun sales for agency processing. This ultimately led to allegations of regulatory abuse and overreach — such as revoking dealer licenses and seizing gun collections on dubious grounds — and ultimately set the stage for future actions that would limit the powers of the ATF.

Congress forbids ATF from centralizing records (on a renewable basis)

Largely in response to a proposal by Democratic President Jimmy Carter to centralize (and eventually computerize) a database of quarterly gun sales reports, Congress cut the ATF’s budget and prohibited the agency from using funds to consolidate records of firearm sales through a funding appropriation, a directive that would have to be renewed every time a federal budget was passed.

Don’t track my guns

The purpose of the Firearms Owners’ Protection Act was to restrict “any undue or unnecessary Federal restrictions or burdens on law abiding citizens with respect to the acquisition, possession, or use of firearms.” To that end, the law limited the number of warrantless compliance inspections ATF agents could conduct on licensees over a 12-month period. More importantly, the law ruled that firearms licensee records could not be kept at a facility owned or maintained by the U.S. government — “nor that any system of registration of firearms, firearm owners, or firearms transactions or dispositions be established.”

Forever ever?

In November 2011, Barack Obama signed into law the Consolidated and Continuing Appropriations Act of 2012. As part of the bill, three funding provisos — which prohibited the consolidation or centralization of gun sales records by the federal government — were made permanent. (Previously, these provisions had been included in funding appropriations each fiscal year.)