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While federal law enforcement sometimes evokes images of high-tech sleuthing straight out of Hollywood, gun tracing by the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives is very much a low-tech affair.

Instead of a relying on a searchable computer database, ATF agents track guns using magnifying glasses, scotch tape and, literally, a paper trail.

A key reason, as The Washington Post reports, is that computerizing gun registration records is anathema to the National Rifle Association, the gun-owners association whose lobbying power seems to outstrip even its impressive membership list of 4 million. The government is prohibited from putting gun ownership records into an easily accessible format, largely because the NRA has lobbied successfully for decades to block all such attempts.

The agency’s conflict with one of the nation’s most significant lobbying groups separates the ATF from agencies such as the Federal Bureau of Investigation, the Drug Enforcement Administration and the Secret Service.

In addition to the strict limits on gun traces, restraints on the ATF manifest themselves in other ways. The department has just 2,500 agents, a staffing level almost unchanged in the past 40 years. Agents are also legally prohibited from requiring gun dealers to search their inventories to determine whether any of their guns have been lost or stolen.

“We’re a political football,” James Cavanaugh, a recently retired 30-year veteran of the ATF, told the Post.

As a result of restrictions, ATF agents visit only a small portion of the estimated 60,000 gun shops in the U.S. in any given year, and shop owners wait up to eight years between visits.

Source: Patrick Corcoran for Fair Warning.

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