A routine inquiry to the Treasury Department's Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms has uncovered a four-year-old bureaucratic bungle that firearms owners would like to use to reopen a debate on federal gun-control regulations.

BATF officials want to correct the the mistake quietly, saying it amounts to a minor, technical change. But with an emotional issue such as gun control, nothing can be quietly slipped by. Thus, Gun Owners of America, which discovered the error, argues that the correction is a major, substantive change that should be the subject of a public hearing.

The episode started when Gary Curran, director of governmental relations for the gun owners group, called the BATF with a question. An official referred him to the BATF manual but told him that a form that it included was incorrect.

The form is one that gun dealers must fill out whenever they sell a firearm -- and is used to track about 12 million transactions a year.

"That's more than customs forms; that's more than passport forms," Curran said. "These forms probably affect more people than any other federal form except tax forms."

The form is supposed to be headed "Description of Firearm," and include listings underneath for the maker of the firearm, its model, caliber, gauge and serial number. But since 1981, the form that has appeared in the BATF manual -- and in revised editions of the Code of Federal Regulations (CFR) -- puts the manufacturer heading at the top, with "description of firearm" listed as one of the smaller, separate categories.

Robert Jordan, chief of the Code of Federal Regulations Branch in the Office of the Federal Register, said the error occurred when the office switched its typesetting operation from hot metal to cold type. "There were a lot of bugs in the process," he said, "particularly table headings and that sort of thing . . . . This one apparently slipped through."

But, he said, "It's a technical type of correction. It's not what we'd call a substantive change."

In a March 21 letter, Jordan acknowleged to the gun owners' lawyers that the wrong version of the form was published in the code for four consecutive years. But no matter, he said. Legally, the only version that counts is the one that appeared in the Federal Register after the law was passed, and that version was right.

Jordan maintained that the change could be accomplished with a correction, since the Code of Federal Regulations is not the original, legally binding document. He also said "there is no time limit" for correcting typographical mistakes in the CFR -- even after four years.

But to the gun owners group there is a larger issue. "BATF has had a history of being extremely picky about these forms," Curran said, "and requiring that all the I's are dotted and all the T's are crossed.

"It's a glorious bureaucratic screw-up, and it's particularly aggregious because they have a history of being such bears," he said.

Lawyers for the gun owners group have filed a petition seeking delay of the correction until the BATF holds a public hearing on the change and provides time for public comment.

But the change appeared in last Monday's Federal Register as a technical correction. So far, there's been no response to the petition of the gun owners group.

"The price of liberty is eternal vigilance," Curran said, "and if they open it up to a public hearing, we're certainly going to bring up some of the other issues," such as whether the form amounts to needless paper work.

BATF has said it will accept the incorrect form -- if all information is provided -- until supplies run out.