Gun dealers who break the law by turning a blind eye to federal licensing rules are as dangerous to society as people who have no right to a possess a firearm in the first place. Yet a recent report shows that the federal agency responsible for policing the legal gun trade routinely goes soft on dealers who violate the law. This is not the only gap in the system but a breach that undermines the foundation of the nation’s gun safety protections.
The New York Times recently reported that even as federal investigators inspecting the nation’s gun stores regularly find violations of the law, higher-ups at the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives routinely overrule them. They allow gun dealers who fail inspections to keep their licenses even after they were previously warned on the rules, according to records and interviews with current and former law enforcement officials. Of about 11,000 inspections of federally licensed firearms dealers in 2016-17, more than half were cited for violations, the Times reported — yet less than 1 percent of all inspections resulted in the loss of a license.
Many violations, as the newspaper noted, were minor: Stores made clerical and bookkeeping errors or failed to manage their records appropriately. But there were also many example of serious violations. One store was cited for failing to conduct a criminal background check before selling a gun. Another acknowledged it actively tried to circumvent the gun laws. One seller threatened an ATF officer; another sold a gun to a customer who identified himself as a felon. Felons cannot legally possess a gun. All were previously cited by ATF, and in each case, supervisors overrode the staff recommendations that the stores’ licenses be revoked. Allowing even one gun into the wrong hands could result in a tragedy. "We’re not selling ice cream here," one retired ATF inspector said. "If you screw up, somebody can be killed."
The light punishment reflects another dimension of the gun lobby’s clout in Congress. For gun dealers to lose their license, ATF must prove not only that gun dealers broke the law but that they intended to do so. One former inspector said the hurdle was so high that it prompted the agency to "bend over backwards" to bring dealers into compliance rather than to risk losing a case in court. The Times review found that even after stores had been warned they continued to violate the law — and the agency allowed them to continue operating. This is a ridiculous operating practice for regulating one of the most dangerous possessions in society. It rewards the worst operators in the industry and reduces federal law enforcement to a paper tiger.
The recent mass shootings have highlighted how no one gun safety measure works in isolation. Expanding criminal background checks, increasing mental health services, banning military-style assault rifles and large-capacity magazines, and giving families and the criminal justice system new tools to keep weapons from those deemed to pose a danger all need to play a part. But even the ideal safety net is meaningless if authorities lack the power and intention to enforce the spirit of the law.
Gun dealers who don’t follow the law should not be allowed to profit from noncompliance. Congress needs to give ATF more direct authority and the resources it needs to ensure that dealers are acting responsibly. It also needs to demand a greater sense of accountability at the agency. Inspectors shouldn’t have to keep pleading with gun dealers to behave as the law intends.