There is no official ruling from ATF that currently governs the electronic or digital storage of the ATF Form 4473.  However, in April of 2022 at the Firearms Industry Conference, and reaffirmed at the National Shooting Sports Foundation (NSSF) Range-Retailer EXPO in New Orleans just a few weeks ago, ATF publicly stated that the new ruling is on the horizon and will take effect on August 24th.  That is only a few weeks away!

So, what does that mean?  Simply stated, you will no longer need an approved variance from ATF to digitally store your 4473s, just like you no longer need an approved variance from ATF to use an electronic bound book or electronic 4473 software to fill out your 4473s.  Many of you may remember a time when you had to get an approved variance to use software as your bound book or to complete a 4473.  That all changed in 2008.  Of course, ATF updated those rulings (2008-1 and 2008-2) over the years, once in 2013 and again in 2016.  This new ruling in 2022 will have the same effect on your ability to store your 4473s digitally. 

Does this mean, as of this ruling you will simply be able to save a PDF copy of your 4473s on your desktop, or in a file folder on your computer?  Absolutely NOT.  Doing so, will not meet any of the requirements ATF will define as the minimum standard to store 4473s digitally.  It has never been—nor will it be the case in August of 2022—ok to keep a simple PDF copy of a completed 4473 as the official record of the transaction taking place at your gun counter.   

While the ruling is not yet public, it has been communicated to the firearms industry that the current list of requirements on the ATF’s website for digital 4473 storage will be nearly verbatim listed in the new ruling.  ATF lists 16 very specific requirements your software must meet:

What are electronic Form 4473 storage requirements?

  • Licensees must provide written notification to their local ATF Industry Operations Area Office 60 days prior to implementing a digital Form 4473 storage system.
  • Transactions must first be completed using an eForm 4473 and must be completed entirely in a digital environment, in accordance with ATF Ruling 2016-2 (or subsequent Rulings).
  • Forms 4473 must be saved in an unalterable format. The original Form 4473 must be retained and may not be deleted, amended, replaced or otherwise altered.
    • If errors are found on a Form 4473, corrections may be made to a copy of the original Form 4473. This copy should be attached at the end of the original Form 4473 and all changes must have initials, and dates must be visible on the corrected copy.
  • All supplemental ATF forms for a transaction (Multiple Sales, etc.) must be electronically attached at the end of the Form 4473 for continuity and ease of review. 
  • ATF must be provided uninterrupted access to the system to facilitate a compliance inspection. ATF access during inspections must be in a “read only” capacity.
  • ATF must be provided access to the system with a minimum of one digital access point or computer terminal for every 500 Forms 4473 executed over the previous 12-month period.
  • filter (or wall) must be created to store Forms 4473 for completed transactions separately from Forms 4473 for transactions that were not completed and a background check was initiated (i.e. NICS denied the transaction).
    • If Forms 4473 without retention requirements[1] under 27 CFR 478.129(b) are stored, a filter (or wall) must be created to ensure they are segregated from Forms 4473 that are required to be retained (i.e. the customer answered “yes” to a prohibiting question and the store stops the transaction before a NICS check).
  • The system must allow Forms 4473 to be printed upon request from ATF.
  • The system must store Forms 4473 in alphabeticalchronological or numerical order.
  • The system must back up the storage of Forms 4473 upon the completion of a transaction or when a transaction is stopped and the Form 4473 must be retained.
  • The system must allow access to Forms 4473 and the acquisition and disposition (A&D) record simultaneously (toggle back and forth).
  • The system must provide the ability to flag or set aside Forms 4473 for ATF to save for further review during inspections.
  • The system must allow or provide sorting of Forms 4473 during ATF compliance inspections.
  • Electronically completed Forms 4473 must be downloaded and saved to a computer hard drive, server, Compact Disc (CD), Digital Versatile Disc (DVD), Universal Serial Bus (USB) Flash Drive or other similar electronic storage device located at the licensed premises.
    • If the licensee utilizes a contract host facility such as a remote server or cloud storage provider, all Forms 4473 must also be electronically saved to an onsite electronic storage device that is updated on a daily basis to protect the data from accidental deletion or system failure.
    • In all cases, electronically stored ATF Forms must be downloaded in a format that is unencrypted with the required information readily apparent and retained on a device that is located at the licensed premises in accordance with 27 CFR 478.121(a) for the length of time prescribed by §478.129.
  • All previously completed hard-copy ATF Forms 4473 must be retained on the licensed premises in the manner and for the length of time prescribed by the regulations.
  • Upon discontinuance of business, Forms 4473 shall be submitted electronically to the National Tracing Center – Out of Business Records Center in a format suitable for imaging such as TIFF, JPEG, or PDF.
    • If the Forms will be submitted in a PDF format, the licensee shall ensure that Optical Character Recognition (OCR) and Intelligent Character Recognition (ICR) are turned off/disabled.
    • The Forms shall be submitted on a media device such as a USB drive, CD, DVD, etc. and shall be stored per regulation (alphabetically, chronologically by disposition date, or by transaction serial number).
    • The submission of electronic ATF Forms 4473 does not[2] affect the current requirement per ATF Ruling 2016-1 to submit electronic A&D records in a text format.

As you can see, a simple PDF saved on your computer (which is, by the way, completely alterable and not secure in any way), is in no way compliant with ATF’s upcoming new ruling.  If you are currently storing PDF 4473s in any manner that does not meet the above requirements, now would be an excellent time to review your operation and make the changes needed to keep your FFL compliant. 

Additionally, a separate ruling, that will also take effect on the 24th of August, will change the length of time and the type of 4473 transactions you are required to keep.  Currently ATF final rule 2021R-05F, is listed in the National Register for your review.  The overwhelming majority of this ruling is focused on the Definition of “Frame of Receiver” and Identification of Firearms.  In fact, that is the name of the ruling as listed on ATF’s site.  In reading that name, one wouldn’t rationally think this has anything to do with a 4473.  However, sandwiched in the massively large ruling, there is language specific to the 4473.

In a nutshell, Section I of the new ruling will amend 27 CFR 478.129 to require FFLs to retain “ALL” records until the FFL’s business is closed or licensed activity is discontinued.  “All,” is a key word here.  Today, and up until this ruling is effective, retail FFLs have been required to keep their A&D Book, or Bound Book, for 20 years.  Additionally, 4473s in which the firearm was transferred, are to be kept for 20 years and 4473s for which NICS was contacted but the transfer did not take place are to be kept for 5 years. This will all be expanded on August 24th

Starting August 24, 2022, with the final rule becoming effective, your bound book records and every 4473 that is started, is required to be kept indefinitely.  That’s right.  Every 4473 that is started, must be retained for the life of your business.  Yes, we have confirmation of this requirement in writing from ATF’s FIPB and while there is much discussion taking place on what constitutes “starting” a 4473, it remains clear you will have to keep a lot more 4473s moving forward.   However, there is a silver lining – remember the ruling that will allow variance-free digital storage we discussed earlier? 

First, you can go digital right now and ensure all your 4473s moving forward are stored electronically in the cloud.  We’d be happy to help you with that.  Also, and while this has NOT been seen in writing, ATF has stated that legacy paper records (with some parameters needing to be met) will be allowed to be scanned or otherwise digitized and stored electronically as well.  Those are two big wins for your FFL’s operations.  Go digital now, and eventually get all that old paperwork out of your shop for good.  Just don’t assume that a PDF copy of a 4473 is good enough.  It isn’t.

A lot to digest here, we know.  But we’d be happy to discuss these new rulings and their contents with you in as much detail as you like.  Contact us anytime at 512-838-4060 or shoot us an email at .

[1] See the discussion below about ATF’s new requirement for retaining all Forms 4473 that have been “started”.

[2] ATF’s website currently states: “The submission of electronic ATF Forms 4473 does affect the current requirement per ATF Ruling 2016-1 to submit electronic A&D records in a text format.”  However, we believe this may be a typo and that ATF meant to say they do NOT affect the text format requirement for electronic A&D records.  ATF Ruling 2016-1 requires electronic A&D records to be submitted in ASCII text format.  Hopefully, this will be clarified when the new rule is finalized.

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Travis Glover Aug. 1st, 2022

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