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March 4, 2022
Statutory Federal Gun Registry Prohibitions and ATF Record
Retention Requirements

Four provisions of current law prohibit a national registry
of most, but not all, modern firearms. Two of these
prohibitions set limits on the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco,
Firearms and Explosives (ATF) principally, while the other
two set limits on the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI).
In 2016, the Government Accountability Office (GAO)
found ATF mainly in compliance with its limits, but a May
2021 proposed rule has raised questions anew about ATF
record retention. This rule would require gun dealers to
retain transaction records for the entirety of their licensed
activities, as opposed to the last 20 years of those activities.
These records are submitted to ATF whenever dealers go
out of business. Some gun rights advocates and Members of
Congress contend that this proposed rule possibly exceeds
ATF's legal authority and could be in contravention to the
two ATF-related registry prohibitions described below.
GCA-NFA Firearms Recordkeeping
Two major federal statutes regulate commerce in and
possession of firearms. They are the 1934 National
Firearms Act (NFA) and the Gun Control Act of 1968
(GCA). At the Department of Justice (DOJ), ATF is the
principal agency that administers and enforces the NFA and
GCA; however, the FBI administers the GCA background
check provisions. The GCA requires anyone who engages
in the business of manufacturing, importing, or dealing in
firearms to be licensed federally. These licensees are known
collectively as federal firearms licensees, or FFLs.
All modern firearms based on post-1898 designs that are
capable of accepting self-contained, commercially available
ammunition are regulated under the GCA, in addition to
certain devices (e.g., silencers) that also fall under the GCA
definition of firearm. Under the NFA, a subset of GCA-
regulated firearms (e.g., machine guns, short-barreled
shotguns, and silencers) deemed to be particularly
dangerous are further regulated. The NFA imposes
occupational taxes on FFLs who manufacture, import, and
deal in NFA firearms; taxes on unlicensed persons making
NFA firearms for themselves; and taxes on NFA firearms
transfers to and among unlicensed persons.
ATF maintains a centralized registry of NFA-regulated
firearms that are held privately by unlicensed persons and
publicly by non-federal law enforcement agencies. This
registry, the National Firearms Registration and Transfer
Record (NFRTR), does not include records on firearms held
or controlled by the U.S. government. Congress prohibited
the transfer of machine guns manufactured after May 19,
1986 to civilians, but machine guns lawfully registered for
civilian transfer prior to that date remain transferable. There
are no similar tax or registration requirements for GCA-
regulated firearms that do not fall under the purview of the

NFA. However, several states do have licensing/permitting
regimes that serve as the basis for state gun registries.
Under the GCA, Congress authorized a decentralized
system of recordkeeping that allows ATF to trace a
firearm's chain of commerce, from manufacturer or
importer to dealer, and to the first retail purchaser of record.
FFLs must maintain firearms transaction records; i.e., ATF
Form 4473s on individual transfers and a corresponding
acquisition/disposition log. FFLs must maintain these
records for a minimum of 20 years under current ATF-
promulgated regulations, and must submit a minimum of 20
years of their most recent transaction records to ATF
whenever they go out of business (27 C.F.R. §478.129).
Permanent ATF Appropriations Limitation
For 34 years, FY1979 through FY2012, Congress attached
a proviso to the annual ATF appropriations that blocked a
Carter Administration proposed rule, and any similarly
proposed rule, that would have required FFLs to submit
quarterly reports on firearms sales and dispositions. For
FY2012, a word of futurity (hereafter) was included in
this proviso, which indicates it too is intended to be
permanent law (H.Rept. 112-284, p. 240). This proviso
reads:
Provided, That no funds appropriated herein or
hereafter shall be  available for salaries or
administrative  expenses  in  connection  with
consolidating  or  centralizing,  within  the
Department of Justice, the records, or any portion
thereof, of acquisition and disposition of firearms
maintained by [F]ederal firearms licensees.
(Consolidated and Further Continuing Appropriations Act,
2012, P.L. 112-55, November 18, 2011, 125 Stat. 552, 609.)
Firearms Owners' Protection Act (FOPA), 1986
Under 18 U.S.C. §926, the Attorney General is authorized
to prescribe the rules and regulations necessary to carry out
the GCA. Section 6 of FOPA amended §926 to prohibit a
registry of firearms, firearms owners, or firearms
transactions. The pertinent language of §926 reads:
No such rule or regulation prescribed 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

ittps://trsreports.congress.gr

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