Despite its frequent assertions that it represents the interests of law-abiding gun owners and dealers, the NRA has put a lot of time into defending precisely those people who do the most to arm criminals.
Lobbying by the association has left the Bureau of Alcohol, Firearms, Tobacco and Explosives almost powerless to enforce laws on gun purchases intended to prevent unscrupulous and negligent dealers from supplying the black market. Since police trace more than half of the guns they recover in investigating crimes to about 1 percent of the country’s dealers, gun-control advocates should ask whether to direct more of this moment’s widespread outrage might towards making sure that the basic laws we already have are properly enforced.
For example, the owner of Bull’s Eye Shooter Supply in Tacoma, Wash. could not account for 160 firearms when the bureau audited him in 2000. It is, of course, extremely unlikely that 160 weapons could simply disappear from a gun store without the owner’s knowledge, but there was nothing the bureau could do. In 2002, when police traced the rifle used in the Beltway Sniper killing spree to Bull’s Eye, the owner claimed it had been stolen, though he hadn’t reported the theft of the $1,600 gun before. Brent Kendall outlined these facts in the Washington Monthly at the time:
To really deter licensed sellers from violating federal laws—as opposed to just arresting them after guns hit the streets—ATF needed powers to encourage compliance: the ability to levy fines, suspend licenses, audit when necessary, and charge dealers with felony record-keeping violations when appropriate.
The NRA had convinced Congress to remove those powers, claiming that ATF was harassing responsible dealers. In other words, the bureau needed the same straightforward legal authority that other regulatory agencies rely on to monitor drugstores and meatpackers, and the gun lobby successfully argued that dealers were entitled to special treatment at the expense of public safety.
If there were any doubt about the gun lobby’s true intentions, the next year Congress passed an amendment sponsored by Todd Tiahrt, the former Republican representative from Kansas, that prevented ATF from requiring inventories from gun dealers. The NRA argued that taking inventory would be onerous for gun dealers and would force them to raise prices for customers. (For some reason the NRA has not lobbied for similar exemptions for grocery stores.)
The Tiahrt amendment also requires the ATF to keep all the data it collects secret; advocacy organizations had been using the bureau’s data to bring civil cases against gun dealers. To be sure, gun stores shouldn’t necessarily be held responsible for the crimes of others, and it seems that almost all merchants had nothing to fear from these lawsuits. Dealers rarely avoid doing what the law and basic morality requires them to do to make sure their guns probably won’t be misused, but when they do, denying the victims of their negligence a day in court is unjust.
The Washington Post painstakingly collected records maintained from state and local police departments in 2010, producing a detailed account of the black market for guns in and around the nation’s capital. The paper’s research validated other data showing that a small fraction of dealers are responsible for arming most criminals:
Nearly two out of three guns sold in Virginia since 1998 and recovered by local authorities came from about 1 percent of the state’s dealers – 40 out of the 3,400 selling guns. Most of those 40 had received government warnings that their licenses were in jeopardy because of regulatory violations. But only four had their licenses revoked, and all are still legally selling guns after transferring their licenses, reapplying or re-licensing under new owners.
The ATF, prohibited from computerizing its data and severely understaffed, lacks the resources to enforce the law. (Nor were these sellers simply the largest gun stores in the state. They sold a disproportionate number of guns later recovered in crimes relative to the total number of guns they sold.)
The Post also found that “virtually all crime guns are first sold as new weapons by a licensed dealer to someone who cleared a background check,” suggesting that expanding background checks is unlikely to protect many people from gun violence. Unscrupulous dealers can always falsify their records, and criminals can find others to buy guns for them. That problem might be partially solved by another proposal, which would allow gun dealers to be jailed if they sell weapons that they have “reasonable cause” to believe will be used to commit crimes. It would prevent situations like this one, which The Post described in its investigation:
Two felons from New York were recruiting people with clean records to buy handguns and assault rifles from D & R Arms and a handful of other Hampton Roads merchants. The buyers, including the elderly and indigent, were paid in crack or cash. Trafficked guns were sometimes resold the next day in New York City. When law enforcement busted up the ring in 2005, traffickers had secured at least 50 guns, 15 of them from D & R. The traffickers later told investigators that they were in and out of D & R Arms with so many different people that the sales staff must have suspected they were making straw purchases.
Still, even if that bill can’t pass, it’s possible that legislation to restore some of the ATF’s authority could. Politically, it would be hard for the firearm industry’s lobbying group to oppose expanding the staff of the ATF enough to allow it to audit gun stores that appear to be supplying criminals or giving the bureau the authority to fine negligent dealers. Modestly strengthening the ATF’s power would keep many people from harm. After all, the NRA is constantly saying that the federal government should enforce the law on criminals, not on law-abiding Americans, and the association is correct: the government needs to be able to compel those dealers who sell guns illegally to abide by the law.