Supported by

The Atlantic Selects

The Extremely Inefficient—And Only—Way to Trace Guns in the U.S.

Aug 06, 2019 | 831 videos
Video by David Freid

On television, when a perpetrator leaves a gun at the scene, a quick computer search can point law enforcement to the weapon’s owner. In reality—at least in the United States—no such database of firearms exists. To have one would be illegal, according to legislation that passed in Congress in 1986, lobbied for by the National Rifle Association.

Instead, we have the National Tracing Center, in Martinsburg, West Virginia. There, a nonsearchable index of paperwork related to gun purchases is housed in hundreds of shipping containers and file boxes. The small federal agency operates with technology so antediluvian that it precludes the use of an Excel spreadsheet. It is the only facility in the country that tracks firearms from a manufacturer to a purchaser.

In David Freid’s short documentary Guns Found Here, Special Agent Charles J. Houser of the Bureau for Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives, who runs the facility, reveals the Kafkaesque record-keeping systems that he deftly employs to manage more than 67 million files on a shoestring budget.

“The technology that we use is largely designed to prevent us from being able to create the registration system,” Houser explains in the film, which was recently nominated for an Emmy.

Every day, Houser and his team field more than 8,000 trace requests from authorities across the country; annually, the facility traces more than 450,000 guns to their owners to help solve violent crimes. Some of these crimes are mass shootings. In 2007, the center performed a trace on the gun used in the murder of 32 students and faculty at Virginia Tech; in 2011, the agency tracked the gun involved in the shooting of 19 people, including Representative Gabrielle Giffords, in Tucson, Arizona.

“Finding the owner of a gun crime more quickly could save lives,” Freid told me, “but anything that even remotely looks like a searchable database is against the wishes of the original legislation that created this.”

Freid filmed at the National Tracing Center for two days. During that time, there was a mass shooting. The day Freid released Guns Found Here, there was another mass shooting.

“Fixing this one small issue of the analog tracing center would have a ripple effect on sensible gun legislation that could help prevent further mass shootings,” the filmmaker said.

We want to hear what you think about this article. Submit a letter to the editor or write to

Author: Emily Buder

About This Series

A showcase of cinematic short documentary films, curated by The Atlantic.