With resources scarce, ATF struggles to inspect gun dealers
By KATE IRBY | McClatchy Washington Bureau | Published: January 13, 2018
WASHINGTON (Tribune News Service) — Gun rights advocates have long sought to fight off new measures that could restrict the availability of firearms by urging federal officials to make sure current laws are followed.
But what if the feds are unable to?
Case in point: Inspections of firearms dealers by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) are meant to ensure, among other things, that they keep complete sales records so guns used in crimes are traceable, and that they don't sell their wares to those forbidden to buy them.
However, those inspections are few and far between.
According to a 2013 Office of the Inspector General report, only about 58 percent of firearms dealers were inspected within five years.
ATF officials declined to provide a more recent comparable figure, but in 2016, ATF inspected just 7.1 percent of 137,464 active firearms dealers for compliance. At that rate, it would take the agency 14 years to inspect all firearms dealers – likely longer, as the number of dealers has been steadily increasing.
That's not even close to ATF's goal of inspecting each dealer every three to five years. (The goal used to be every three years, but was loosened in the last decade.)
An ATF spokesman, Special Agent Josh E. Jackson, declined to comment this month, but in the past the agency has made it clear that the issue is one of staffing, or rather a lack thereof. Former ATF officials say that without an increase in personnel, five years is not a realistic goal for compliance inspections on firearm dealers.
"ATF has always tried to meet inspection goals but there are so many federal firearms licensees and so few investigators that the numbers just don't work out that way," said Michael Bouchard, president of the ATF Association, which is comprised of former and current members of ATF. "If you're going to do the inspections right, it's just too time consuming."
Of course, there's no law requiring that gun sellers be inspected – at all. Legally, firearms dealers must submit to inspections, but ATF isn't required to conduct them.
ATF is legally barred from inspecting a dealer too often, though. Agents can't inspect the same seller more than once a year without a warrant – not that there appears to be much danger of such an event.
When inspections do occur, they often reveal a range of problems. Less than half of dealers inspected are found fully compliant. In fiscal year 2016, one-third of inspections found some sort of violation, the majority of which were serious; those include a dealer selling a firearm to someone they had reasonable cause to believe was prohibited, or failing to report multiple handgun sales to a single buyer(another 22 percent were listed as "other," which can simply mean the dealer went out of business). Penalties can include a simple reprimand calling on the dealer to fix the violation, or in more severe cases formal warnings or a revocation of the dealer's license, though former ATF officials say that is rare.
Regular inspections, ATF agents say, help make sure gun dealers hew to the protocol required when selling someone a firearm. Howard Wolfe, a former ATF inspector for 36 years, gave an example from his days at the agency of a "straw purchase," a common way criminals illegally obtain guns.
"A young lady came in to a dealer to buy a gun for her boyfriend, which she didn't want to do. So when she was filling out the form, she marked 'no' when it asked if she was buying the firearm for herself," Wolfe said. "Now, when that happens, it's supposed to stop the whole purchase until the dealer resolves that issue. But in this case, the dealer told her, 'You marked that wrong.' Not because he was trying to do anything illegal, he just didn't know better."
A few weeks later, the man was caught with the gun and arrested for illegally obtaining firearms, Wolfe said. During the arrest, they discovered that not one, but two dealers had sold the woman guns. She'd also marked the form at the other dealer to show she wasn't buying the gun for herself, but that dealer ignored it.
Most violations tend to be due to "honest mistakes and carelessness," according to Bouchard, but if inspectors don't come in to tell sellers what they're doing wrong, the mistakes tend to continue.
For a sense of the effect regular inspections can have on an industry where mistakes can prove fatal, look no further than explosives manufacturers, which the ATF does inspect at minimum every three years – because it's mandated by law, unlike inspections of gun dealers. The Safe Explosives Act, passed in 2002 as part of a broader effort to combat terrorism, mandated those compliance inspections every three years.
Of the 10,016 active explosives licensees, 4,305 were inspected in fiscal year 2016, according to the ATF. Two-thirds were found in full compliance, while only 8.6 percent had some sort of violation – just more than half of them minor.
"Explosives inspections are also easier, compared to firearms inspections that are significantly more complicated," Bouchard said. "But the explosives inspections have to get done, so other things get pushed aside."
Former ATF officials see little chance that a similar mandate on firearms inspections would pass Congress due to the strength of the gun rights lobby, led by the National Rifle Association. What's more, they don't want it, unless there's money attached.
"If you increase the workload without providing more resources, what do you think is going to happen?" Wolfe asked. "The quality of inspections would go down, significantly. Something has to give."
Absent additional resources – which ATF has requested for years with limited success – Wolfe said ATF's main solution is to be smarter about how it conducts inspections, using data on gun crimes and sales to pick which dealers are more likely to contribute to the problem. ATF Special Agent Jackson said ATF does weigh a number of factors in choosing which firearm dealers to inspect, but said those factors are "law enforcement sensitive."
Additionally, while educational resources for firearms dealers still exist, they've dropped off from what they were a decade ago and are not mandatory for those applying for a license to open shop, according to Wolfe.
Jones said if any changes are going to be made to laws on the books, the mandate on explosives inspections should be repealed rather than a new law put in place on firearms inspections.
"I don't get this idea that one is generally more important than the other," Jones said. "Basically all (the Safe Explosives Act mandate) did is knocked the snot out of ATF's ability to do firearms inspections, even though we arguably lose far more people to firearms."
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