Opponents of expanding background checks for gun sales often raise the fear that it would allow the government to create a national gun registry — a database of gun transactions. In fact, federal law already bans the creation of such a registry. And the reality of how gun sales records are accessed turns out to be surprisingly low-tech.
The trace begins after police seize a gun at a crime scene and then reach out to the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives National Tracing Center in Martinsburg, W.Va. — the one place in the country that can investigate where the gun came from.
Here, in a warren of cubicles, ATF contractors are busy on the phones pursuing trace after trace. On a recent visit, they had 700 calls to make. Last year, ATF processed more than 344,000 crime gun trace requests.
Many people assume that ATF has a massive database of gun owners at its fingertips and can instantly access that information. The reality is very different. It involves lots of phone calls — and often, manual labor.
Here's how it works.
Local law enforcement sends ATF the particulars on the gun they've seized: the manufacturer, model, caliber, serial number. ATF then starts running that information back through the distribution chain, contacting the gun manufacturer, say, Glock or Smith & Wesson, and the manufacturer checks its records and identifies the wholesaler it sold the firearm to.
Then, ATF contacts the wholesaler, then the agency goes down the record chain until it finds the retail gun dealer. It's that dealer who should be able to say who bought that firearm.
It's up to the federally licensed gun dealer to keep the record of each gun purchase. It's a three-page form called a 4473 that the buyer and dealer have to fill out before a sale.
Scott Hester leads an ATF team that handles urgent gun traces for things like gun trafficking, homicide and violent crime.
"I take it personally that these traces come across my desk, and I'm doing what I can to help solve a crime," Hester says.
His cubicle is lined with newspaper headlines about the cases he's proudly handled.
"The very high-profile traces like Gabby Giffords, I worked on that case," he says. "I worked on a case where four officers ... were having coffee [one morning] and they got killed. Newtown, we got called in on that one."
If they're lucky, the trace can be completed really fast.
"It does not happen very often. But imagine the delight on the cop's face when we can put that gun in that bad guy's hand in 15 minutes," Hester says. "It makes them very happy."
Hester calls that "winning the trace lottery."
About 70 percent of the time, ATF says it can successfully trace a gun back to a buyer. Of course, for local law enforcement, that doesn't necessarily solve things.
That gun could have traded hands many more times after the original sale. It could have been transferred in private sales or maybe stolen. And for ATF, there's a whole other level of complication.
For about a third of the traces, it turns out the gun dealer, the wholesaler or manufacturer has gone out of business.
By law, when they close up shop, they have to ship all their gun purchase documents here to the ATF tracing center in West Virginia.
On a recent visit, the center received a dozen boxes of records from an Alabama gun dealer who's gone out of business. But these gun sale records can come in by the truckload — as many as 3,000 boxes at a time, hundreds of millions of pages in all. Those pages are stored in stacked cartons that the walls and reach the ceiling of the center. Boxes are everywhere. All of these cartons hold records of gun sales from businesses that have folded.
"On any given day, we will have to hand search these records," says ATF Special Agent Charles Houser, who runs the National Tracing Center.
That's right, hand search.
What that means is, if it's a gun maker or seller who's gone out of business, the workers here have to painstakingly leaf through these documents one page at a time looking for a match to the gun they're trying to trace.
"The idea that we have a computer database and you just type in a serial number and it pops out some purchaser's name is a myth," Houser says.
They don't have that searchable, central database because the National Rifle Association and the gun lobby have successfully blocked that through Congress. They argue a database of gun transactions would be a dangerous step toward a national gun registry.
So tracers comb through page after page of records as they stand amid boxes stacked head-high. ATF gets more than one million of these out-of-business records every month. And when they open those boxes of paperwork, who knows what they might find.
Houser points to a table filled with battered, burned and waterlogged gun sale records.
"These look like the Dead Sea Scrolls to me," he says. "These are Hurricane Katrina records we kept. Businesses went underwater and they went out of business. But they still shipped their records here and we dried these out in the parking lot."
And occasionally a gun dealer might deliver a not-so-subtle message with the ledgers — the acquisition and disposition books — he sends in.
"So those not so friendly with the government have maintained their A & D books on paper towel or toilet paper," Houser says. And it turns out, that's fine with him. "As long as you get the records, I'm OK."
ATF used to put these documents on microfilm. Now, the agency scans them.
"We have to have seven scanners running 16 hours a day or we fall behind," Houser says. But even once the pages are scanned, Houser points out, they're still not searchable. They're just making a digital image.
"The only difference between the digital images and searching the boxes is that now somebody can sit at a TV screen and they will flip through page by page. It's not searchable by anybody's name," he says.
With so much paperwork flooding in — there's a backlog — about 3,000 boxes right now are waiting to be scanned.
"When we pass 10,000 boxes here, GSA [the General Services Administration], who owns the building, warned us that the floor will collapse," Houser says. "So what we've had to do is rent shipping containers and then we put those out in the parking lot and we have to send people out into the shipping containers to search boxes."
Houser figures that 90 percent of the time, ATF can complete an urgent trace within 24 hours. For a routine trace, it might take a week.
Houser admits this whole process looks pretty ugly, but he maintains that it is effective.
On the day of NPR's visit, the National Tracing Center completed 1,500 gun traces — with another 5,000 cases still in process.
Microsoft hasn't exactly had a great couple of years.
Its new Windows 8 operating system was held responsible for the drop in PC sales last quarter. Sales of its Windows Phones lag far behind both the iPhone and Google's Android phones.
The light in the darkness for Microsoft has been the Xbox 360, which has been the top-selling game console for over two years — beating out both the Nintendo Wii and Sony's PlayStation. On Tuesday, Microsoft is expected to announce a new version of the Xbox.
The new Xbox will certainly have plenty to entice hard-core gamers. Analysts say it will be faster, have amazingly realistic graphics and as much as two terabytes of storage. Fans of Call of Duty have already been getting tantalizing peeks at the new version and undoubtedly they will learn more about the updated game at Tuesday's event.
But, the new Xbox is going to be about more than hard-core games. Microsoft wants to be the center of your living room.
It's a strategy that's been working well for the company. According Microsoft, last year people spent more time on Xbox Live (the company's online service) watching TV and movies than they did playing games. Analysts say the new Xbox is going to move the console further down that road.
Michael Pachter, an analyst at Wedbush Securities who follows the game industry, believes that a deal is in the works that will turn the Xbox into a cable connection. That means you could switch from playing Call of Duty to watching Game of Thrones without changing boxes. However, Pachter says he isn't certain if Microsoft will announce that at Tuesday's press conference.
Pachter says most likely Tuesday will be a preview. Microsoft purchased Skype, so we are likely to learn about how you'll be able to see and chat with your friends while you're watching Game of Thrones or playing Call of Duty. The Kinect, Microsoft's gesture computing device, may be integrated into the Xbox rather than being a separate device.
Microsoft is the last entrant into the next-generation console wars.
Nintendo launched the Wii U last year. So far, the company that brought us Super Mario Brothers and Donkey Kong has seen disappointing sales. Nintendo does not appear to be making a big play for the living room. Sony has already previewed the PS4 but hasn't said much about whether it will go full force into turning the PlayStation into an entertainment center. Pachter believes Sony will follow Microsoft's lead and gear its new console toward more than games.
As technology marches forward, the big growth in gaming is going to be on mobile devices — the smartphone, the tablet — not on consoles. If Microsoft and Sony want to grow, they will have to turn the console into a device that has entertainment features that appeal to non-gamers. It needs to be a device that even grandma might want to buy.
(This post was last updated at 5:12 p.m. ET.)
A massive tornado ripped through the southern suburbs of Oklahoma City, Monday afternoon.
Helicopter images showed large tracts of Moore, Okla., completely leveled by what KFOR-TV reports was a more than mile-wide tornado.
Earlier today, the National Weather Service issued a tornado emergency for the Oklahoma City metro area.
That's a rare warning from the weather service, which says it issues one "when a severe threat to human life and catastrophic damage from a tornado is imminent or ongoing."
The National Weather Service in Norman, Okla., is tweeting updates. At 4:22 p.m. ET. it warned that:
"the tornado is so large you may not realize it's a tornado. If you are in Moore, go to shelter NOW!"
This story is breaking, so the news will surely change quickly. We'll concentrate on information from news outlets and authorities at the scene and will update this post as we get more. KFOR is streaming its live coverage.
Update at 5:04 p.m. ET. Tornado Track:
The National Weather Service has put together a preliminary map of the tornado's tracks.
"Newcastle-Moore OKC Tornado was on the ground approx. 40 minutes. Tornado warning was in effect for 16 minutes before tornado developed."
Update at 4:44 p.m. ET. Devastated Neighborhoods:
Helicopter images of Moore, Oklahoma from KFOR show tracts of devastated neighborhoods. The images show homes missing their roofs, some of them completely leveled.
The reporter on the helicopter said one school was razed by a mile-wide tornado. KFOR showed people walking listlessly through the streets, surveying the damage and reuniting with their families.
Update at 4:38 p.m. ET. Reminiscent Of 1999 Tornado:
Kurt Gwartney of NPR member station KGOU in Oklahoma City said one of the issues with today's tornadoes is that people are at work and school.
"What we're seeing from helicopter coverage," Gwartney tells our Newscast unit, "is very reminiscent of the May 1999 tornado that killed lots of people especially in the Moore area of the Oklahoma City metro.
A report from USA Today at time, put that 1999 tornado's top winds at 318 mph.
Yahoo's $1.1 billion purchase of Tumblr could be considered a bargain compared to its other big-dollar bets. The company's history is dotted with pricey purchases of once-hot Web properties that had more promise than eventual purpose. A look back:
GeoCities, 1999: $3.7 Billion
When Yahoo! bought GeoCities for $3.7 billion in 1999, CNN Money called it a move that would "solidify Yahoo!'s position as a frontrunner in the online popularity contest." History shows us otherwise. Back then, GeoCities was the third most visited "site" on the Web. But it really served as platform for online communities and for users to create their own homepages on the Internet — much like what Tumblr does today.
Geocities never quite figured out monetization and scale.
"Sometimes it's market forces, sometimes the fire just gets snuffed out," said Scott Appleby, a tech industry analyst who was bullish on the GeoCities acquisition in 1999. "There was a thought then that everyone would have their own Web page, and they realized we don't really need that."
By the time Yahoo closed down the service, users had defected so widely to blogs, Twitter, and frankly, Tumblr, that the term "Geocities" became a verb for taking your website back in time to the way they looked in the late 1990s. (No, really. There is a Geocities-izer in which "you can give any site on the Web that straight-out-of-1998 look and feel.")
Yahoo has not yet responded to requests for an interview on the GeoCities history, or its other previous acquisitions.
Broadcast.com, 1999: $5.7 Billion
The search giant purchased the Internet video streaming service for $5.7 billion. It promised to "integrate multimedia services throughout the Yahoo! network." Today, it's no more. After the acquisition, Yahoo! split the services previously offered by Broadcast.com into separate music and video services — Launchcast and Platinum — but both have quietly folded. Key in broadcast.com today and it is a redirect to the main Yahoo site.
But the legacy of Broadcast.com can be considered long, depending on how you look at it. The sale helped make co-founder Mark Cuban $1 billion richer — and famous. He wound up buying the NBA's Dallas Mavericks for $307 million, investing in ventures like HDNet, and getting a whole storyline on HBO's Entourage.
Overture, 2003: $1.63 Billion
Overture is credited as a pioneer in the sale of advertising linked to online search results, but Yahoo struggled to absorb the once-thriving company into its larger culture. Overture's patent for a system to sell advertising displayed next to Web searches was at issue in a years-long legal battle against Google that ended in a settlement in which Yahoo received $365 million in Google shares. But in the decade following the settlement, Google went on to capitalize on paid search and become an industry behemoth while Yahoo's seen its users and its revenue sources dwindle.
Explaining the quiet shutdowns of once-thriving companies acquired by Yahoo, Appleby said, "Sometimes it's hard for these companies to grow and survive and thrive in a larger hierarchical company ... The only way for these [acquisitions] to make sense for a larger companies is for the large company to continue to grow and make money."
Flickr, 2005: $30 Million
The $30 million acquisition of what was then a leading photo sharing service seems paltry, but the history of what happened after the acquisition sounds similar to the bigger dollar purchases. Tech site Pando Daily writes:
"For the first couple of years, things were fine. [Flickr co-founder Caterina] Fake told Gizmodo that 'Yahoo was a good fit initially' and 'in the subsequent two years after the acquisition, Flickr blossomed.' Then Yahoo's Corporate Development department began to bleed Flickr dry, denying it resources because it didn't generate sufficient revenue. 'The money goes to the cash cows, not the cash calf,' as one anonymous Yahoo employee told Gizmodo. Instead of constantly innovating, Flickr management found itself in meetings defending the product."
History As A Teacher?
While Yahoo's historically large purchases didn't pan out, it could benefit from lessons of a rocky past. "Unlike 1999, when Yahoo didn't necessarily need to do a deal like Geocities, 2013 seems to present itself as a time when a Yahoo/Tumblr tie-up would make sense," writes Tristan Lewis in Forbes. "Yahoo and Tumblr may be looking at the Facebook/Instagram blueprint and hoping for the same magic."
And Yahoo is not the same company it was in 1999, or even 2011.
Still, when CEO Marissa Mayer, who joined the company last year from Google, held a conference call Monday morning to explain the decision, Wall Street analysts had lots of questions about how Tumblr would pay for itself.
"You don't even know what the thing is yet," Mayer said. "How big it can get, how far it can go."
She's following a path tread by many other tech startups: First, attract huge audiences, and only after hundreds of millions of users are engaged with the service do you begin to think about how to make money from it. Mayer said Tumblr is now ready for that final step.
"Tumblr is at the point where they do know what it is, and it makes sense to monetize it in a way that is very tasteful and seamless," Mayer said.
The inclusion of Tumblr into its numbers could bump Yahoo's traffic by 50 percent a year, Mayer estimated. If advertising can be married with users of that scale, the deal could be profitable.
"It's too early to say, 'Hey, she paid too much for this company,' " Appleby said. She's made a lot of changes, and many of which for the good of the culture."
One thing the Tumblr acquisition does have in common with all its predecessors: It's making the original founders and investors boatloads of cash, and the people behind the acquired companies seem thrilled about it. Tumblr CEO David Karp wrote that he's "elated" and "couldn't be more excited."
NPR's Steve Henn contributed to this story.
When movie stars become unbankable, they're no longer a slam dunk at the box office. When investments become unbankable, they're relegated to the Wall Street's junk pile. For ordinary Americans deemed unbankable — those who don't have a traditional checking or savings account — it can be hard to simply pay bills.
And that absence of a bank account is about to become a big problem for those who also lack health coverage — and for the health insurance companies trying to sell them coverage. After all, how do you sell a product to a customer who has no easy way to pay you?
One in five households in the U.S. have only a tenuous relationship with a traditional bank. Many of 51 million adults in these households rely on check-cashing stores and money lenders, according to the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation.
The federal health law requires most Americans to carry health insurance starting next January. The presents a particular problem for those households. Most health plans accept a credit card for the first month's premium payment and then require customers to pay monthly with a check or an electronic funds transfer from a checking account.
Those options won't work for the so-called unbankables looking to purchase health coverage with federal subsidies through online insurance marketplaces, says Dan Schuyler, a director at Leavitt Partners, a firm that is advising private insurers and states on how to comply with the law. "You don't want to take these millions of unbankable people through the entire enrollment process and then at the end of line say, 'OK, the only way you can pay for your share of the premium is with a bank account number,' " he says.
The consequences could be severe. When your cable gets turned off, you miss The Walking Dead or Pawn Stars. But starting next year, if your insurance is canceled, you'll be breaking federal law and liable for any medical bills.
Researchers who study consumer financial behavior say people have their reasons for spurning banks. New immigrants, for example, may have distrusted the banks in their home country and brought that skepticism with them to the U.S. And for many people of modest means, overdrafts and fees charged by traditional banks can upend the financial balance in their household.
"The bank account is extremely stressful when you don't have a job that's reliable," says Tran, a 25 year-old community organizer and Ivy League graduate who lives south of San Francisco.
Her current employer doesn't offer her health benefits, and she was turned down, she says, when she applied for health coverage on her own. Tran hopes to get hired to a full-time position and asked that we use just her last name so it didn't give her bosses a bad impression.
Tran says when she took her new job and no longer had direct deposit, Bank of America began charging her, up to $12 a month. "I was not happy with the charges," she says.
Consumers who will be required to purchase health coverage will need payment options that are simple, easy and affordable, say consumer advocates and health care experts.
"I think there is a dawning awareness that this is a large problem," says Brian Haile, senior vice president for health policy at Jackson Hewitt Tax Service. Until last year, Haile was wrestling with this problem on behalf of the state of Tennessee, where he served as director of the Insurance Exchange Planning Initiative. "We raised these issues with the federal government well over a year ago and in a series of about four or five letters." Haile said he didn't get much of a response then.
Indeed, neither the Affordable Care Act, nor any other federal health laws, require health insurers to accept all forms of payment, such as credit cards or the cash-loaded, prepaid debit cards that many people without bank accounts often rely on.
Federal officials are wary of doing anything to discourage insurance companies from selling plans on the exchanges, say current and former state health officers who have pressed the federal Department of Health and Human Services for a ruling.
One of the largest players on the new exchanges is likely to be WellPoint, a Blue Cross and Blue Shield licensee. In an email, a WellPoint spokesperson says the company is "evaluating expanded payment options to members." Other insurers, including Cigna and UnitedHealthcare, are urging state officials in planning documents to allow companies to set their own payment policies.
Federal health officials issued a letter in April stating that all health plans selling coverage in the federally run insurance marketplaces in 28 states will have to accept payments in ways that don't discriminate against their customers, but didn't prescribe what those payments should be.
Varney is a reporter with our partner Kaiser Health News, a nonprofit news service.