5 FFL ‘Willful’ Violation Referrals Result in Mandatory Revocations

By Wally Nelson, NSSF Compliance Consultant

ATF published a list of five violations, that if cited on an inspection and willfully committed, will require the mandatory issuance of a Notice of Revocation. IMG iStock-1174295368

ATF published a list of five violations, that if cited on an inspection and willfully committed, will require the mandatory issuance of a Notice of Revocation.

Understanding ATFs Zero Tolerance Policy


Since the 1986 amendments to the Gun Control Act (GCA), known as the Firearm Owners Protection Act, Federal Firearms Licenses (FFLs) can only be revoked for willful violations of the Act. The word ‘willful’ is not defined in the GCA, but through court decisions has come to mean a knowing violation of a legal duty or plain indifference to or disregard of a known legal duty on the part of an FFL conducting its firearm business.

Since 1986, although ATF can only revoke an FFL for willful violations, it has used its discretion to not always do so, although FFLs have been revoked for a single violation. In 2021, at the direction of the Biden Administration, ATF published a list of five violations, that if cited on an inspection and willfully committed, will require the mandatory issuance of a Notice of Revocation. ATF has stated that these five violations each constitute a risk to public safety. This is known as the Zero Tolerance Policy.

Another, less publicized, aspect of the Zero Tolerance Policy is the referral of state firearm law violations found on ATF inspections to state authorities in states that issue licenses to firearm retailers. The goal is to allow state agencies to revoke state licenses if they deem it appropriate.

A. The Five Violations

1. Transferring a firearm to a prohibited person

The GCA established categories of persons prohibited from receiving or possessing firearms, which are listed on Form 4473 at question 21. b – l. It is a crime for any person to transfer a firearm to whom they have reasonable cause to believe is a prohibited person. (There is a hunting license exception for 21. l.)

If a firearm transferee/buyer answers ‘yes’ to any of those questions on his/her Form 4473 and the FFL goes ahead with the transfer, the FFL has transferred a firearm to a person they had reasonable cause to believe was a prohibited person, because they stated to the FFL that they were. This violation is not removed by a “proceed” response from NICS; NICS does not have access to all criminal records.

To prevent this from happening, it is essential that an FFL conduct a thorough review of Form 4473 PRIOR to conducting the NICS check or continuing with the sale.

Also, if a person’s NICS response is “denied,” it means they are a prohibited person who cannot receive or possess a firearm. If the FFL then transfers the same firearm the denied person wanted to an accomplice of the NICS-denied person, the FFL has made a straw sale and has reasonable cause to believe the firearm is going to the denied person. A straw sale also occurs if the same firearm is transferred to a person of the same last name or address as the denied person.

To prevent this from happening, FFLs must train themselves and their staff to recognize and stop straw sales before they happen.

2. Failing to conduct a required background check

ATF regulation 27 CFR 478.102 a. requires a NICS check is required for every transfer of a firearm to a non-FFL. There are some exceptions to this requirement. Per the requirements of 27 CFR 478.102 c, a NICS check is for a single transaction and is valid for a period not to exceed 30 calendar days from the date that NICS was initially contacted. If the transaction is not completed within the 30-day period, the FFL must initiate a new NICS check prior to the completion of the transfer.

FFLs who make even a single sale to a person whose NICS check occurred over 30 days prior, are receiving Notices of Revocation because they failed to conduct the required new NICS check. This is so, even if the initial response were a “proceed” but the person could not pay for the firearm and did not return for over 30 days. This failure is currently among the leading causes of FFL revocation.

Manufacturers, importers, and retailers should be aware that allowing employees or VIPS to take a firearm off-premises, even temporarily, for a sporting purpose is a transfer that requires the completion of Form 4473 and a NICS check.

To prevent this from happening FFLs must develop a system to identify the 30-day period of validity of the NICS check when a “delayed” NICS response is received, or a transfer does not immediately happen. Whether this is by a sticky note or other means, the FFL and employees must be aware of it and adhere to it. FFLs cannot afford a single error.

One of the exceptions to the NICS check requirement is found at 27 CFR 478.102 (d). This is the state firearm permit exception. If ATF has determined that a state’s firearm permit is valid as an exception to a NICS check, the FFLs in that State are notified in writing. However, the permit is valid as an exception only for transfers in the State it was issued in and only for 5 years from the date of issuance.

FFLs are being revoked if they make even a single sale of a long gun to a resident of another state, where the transferee/buyer presents a firearm permit from that state and the FFL does not conduct a NICS check. A NICS check is required. Similarly, FFLs can be revoked if the permit presented in the state of issuance is no longer valid or if it was issued over 5 years prior to the date of transfer.

To prevent this from happening FFLs must be aware of if their state’s firearm permit is qualified by ATF as an exception to a NICS check and that they cannot use a permit issued by any other state as a NICS exception. Also, FFLs must ensure that the permits presented have not expired and are not more than 5 years old.

3. Falsifying records, such as a firearm transaction form

It should be clear to all FFLs that falsifying records will lead to license revocation, if not criminal prosecution. FFLs must make it clear to all employees that falsification of records is not acceptable and will lead to termination of employment and referral to law enforcement.

One of the more common falsification schemes involves the addition of another firearm to a Form 4473 that the transferee did not buy. FFLs can instruct employees to mark through unused lines in Section A.

Another, not common, is to record “proceed” in block 27 when ‘denied’ is received. FFLs should know that ATF Industry Operations Investigators will have the denied NTNs with them on inspections.

4. Failing to respond to a trace request

ATF Regulation 26 CFR 478.25a Responses to requests for information, requires each FFL to respond immediately but not later than 24 hours after a trace request is received from the ATF National Tracing Center. There is no excuse for not responding. It can happen that the FFL being contacted has no record of receiving the firearm. That is not a reason not to respond; the FFL must report this back to the NTC who will conduct further research.

To prevent this from happening, FFLs must respond to an NTC trace request as soon as they can, and they must establish means for trace responses to continue to be made in the event the shop is closed for vacations, remodeling, or relocation.

5. Refusing to permit ATF to conduct an inspection

Under ATF regulation 27 CFR 478.23, ATF officers have the right, without an inspection warrant, to enter the premises of an FFL not more than once during any 12-month period to examine records and documents required to be kept and the inventory of firearms and ammunition. This must occur within the hours of operation of the FFL as stated on its application for a license, or at other times with the consent of the FFL.

Also, ATF officers have the right of entry at any time with respect to records relating to a firearm involved in a criminal investigation that is traced to the licensee, or when such inspection or examination may be required for determining the disposition of one or more particular firearms in the course of a bona fide criminal investigation.

FFLs should be ready for inspection at any time. Responsible persons must be available to be present for the inspection.

B. ATF State Law Violation Referral Program

FFLs located in the 15 states that license firearm retailers must take care to always comply with all state firearm laws.

15 states currently require firearm retailers to obtain a state license to conduct business. While some of these states do conduct inspections of FFLs for state compliance many do not. Under the Zero Tolerance Policy, ATF will share inspection findings with these states as a “force multiplier.” The goal is to let the states determine if the ATF-shared information would allow the revocation of the state license of the retailers referred and put them out of business.

The 15 states are: Washington, Hawaii, California, Alabama, Illinois, Indiana, Pennsylvania, Delaware, New Jersey, Maryland, Rhode Island, Massachusetts, Connecticut, New York, and New Hampshire.

About The National Shooting Sports Foundation

NSSF is the trade association for the firearm industry. Its mission is to promote, protect and preserve hunting and shooting sports. Formed in 1961, NSSF has a membership of thousands of manufacturers, distributors, firearm retailers, shooting ranges, sportsmen’s organizations, and publishers nationwide. For more information, visit nssf.org

National Shooting Sports Foundation

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Roland T. Gunner

Do away with BATFE; do away with FFLs.


I absolutely agree that the ATF should had been abolished years ago and still should.I’m a.little confused about the FFL’s part of your comment. Currently the ATF is doing everything possible and by whatever means to eliminate FFL’s around the country.


Looks like he is suggesting firearm sales through ordinary retail processes – likely including online with direct shipping instead of to your friendly neighborhood FFL. This would eliminate backdoor registration and restriction to purchasing in your home state. I’m lucky living where I do. Last times I needed to find an FFL for online purchase, there were half a dozen within five miles charging $10 per transfer. Others have it considerably harder. If one lives in DC for example, I’ve read there is but one FFL (actually the police) who create delay by requiring appointments (when available) and charges significantly… Read more »


You’re probably right.


I’m aware how most of you feel about the current status of the NRA. Even as an Endowment-Life member, I agree with most if not all of how you feel. But I want to draw attention to an article in the June 2022 “American Rifleman” that I just received. It is from NRA/ILA Executive Director Jason Ouimet and titled “Biden-Harris Administration Targets Gun Owners By Way Of Gun Dealers.” But the article goes back farther than that and includes the Clinton Administration’s efforts to reduce the number of FFLs in existence. Quoting from the article: “Clinton’s attack on small-scale FFLs… Read more »

Wild Bill

Ok, and if there is no connection between so called rogue dealers and violence where firearms are used, then what do we do?

Roland T. Gunner

The point is, while truly “rogue” FFLs do exist, they are almost as rare as unicorns.

Wild Bill

Yeah, I don’t think that anyone really believes that rogue FFL story. I think that it is a made up scenario to cover their real intentions.


Put at least as much effort into identifying the “bad guys” and putting them away until they’re no longer “bad guys”, forever if necessary, as they do harassing ordinary gun owners and FFL holders. In every problem area in the USA 90% of violent crime is perpetrated by 10% of the career criminals. They’re well known to the legal system and to law enforcement. If Mayor Lori Lightweight told the Chief of the Chicago Police, “Get this trash off my streets in 72 hours or your replacement will!” Chicago would be well on its way to solving its “gun violence… Read more »

Wild Bill

Sounds good to me. Oh and I think that it is even less than ten percent that perpetrates ninety percent of the crime.

Roland T. Gunner



But a prohibited person did buy a firearm in Delaware. He lied on Form 4473.
Isn’t this what they’re stating in #1.
The FFL is somehow supposed to know if a buyer is lying, or if they’re a crackhead, before doing a transfer.

Wild Bill

Most subtle!!


YES, and he has initials of HB, and he isn’t in jail for IYING on that form YET, anybody that did this would be IN JAIL LONG AGO!!!!!!!!!!


I do not remember reading anywhere in the Constitution specifically the 2nd Amendment, where it states that there is any prohibited persons, and to stop this person or that person from possessing firearms. not even misdemeanors, or criminals such as convicted felons. nowhere does the Constitution state anything about stopping American citizen from possessing a firearm. as a matter of fact the Constitution does state, that we are to be allowed access to the same weapons as the military, not those exact words, but close enough.

Last edited 1 month ago by ashort
Wild Bill

That’s ok. We know what you mean, and you are quite correct!! Prohibited persons is a 1968 concept that turns a state conviction into a federal life sentence, without so much as a trial.


Not surprised to see the DemoKKKraticly controlled Md on that list! You now must pay a $10.00 fee, along with the HQL permit plus the one gun per month plus a 7 day waiting period, to the MSP before you can pickup your already purchased lowers!


Not to pick nits here, but a denied NICS check _may_ mean that the purchaser is a prohibited person. It also may be a false denial. Just sayin’.


9 times out of 10 it is a false denial.

J Gibbons

True. But, still can’t proceed with the transfer. The FFL I work for provides a document on all denials and most delays about how the individual can appeal or investigate.

Wild Bill

How does one make an appeal?