More than 62,000 firearms have disappeared from the inventories of licensed U.S. gun dealers in the past three years, according to a study to be released Tuesday by the Brady Center to Prevent Gun Violence.
The study says that the dealers did not have records of legal sales for the guns - an average of about 56 missing firearms per day.
"It is unacceptable that weak federal gun laws and irresponsible gun dealers allow tens of thousands of firearms to leave gun shops without background checks or a record of sale," said Paul Helmke, the center's president.
More than 21,000 firearms were missing in 2010, up from 18,323 in 2009 but down from 22,770 in 2008, according to the study, which was compiled using data from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives. The federal agency could not account for the guns during its compliance inspections of dealers.
"We would like to see it where zero firearms are missing from inventory," said ATF spokesman Scot Thomasson. "We take any missing firearms from inventory seriously and we do work with industry members to try and reduce the number."
Andrew Arulanandam, a spokesman for the National Rifle Association, did not return calls seeking comment.
The Brady Center thinks the actual number of unaccounted-for guns is far higher because ATF inspects less than 20 percent of the nation's dealers annually.
"If they looked at the other 80 percent of these dealers, there'd be a lot more missing guns," Helmke said.
Firearms that leave gun stores without proper background checks and paperwork are coveted by criminals because they cannot be traced to particular people.
The agency has about 600 inspectors responsible for 60,000 retail gun dealers around the country. Dealers on average are inspected once every eight years. An estimated 10,500 compliance inspections were done last year. The agency revokes about 110 licenses a year, and dealers facing revocation voluntarily surrender their licenses in an additional 160 cases annually.
In 2001, ATF officials proposed that dealers be required to take inventory at least once a year to ensure that every weapon was accounted for, Helmke said. But after Congress approved the so-called Tiahrt Amendment in 2003, named for then-Rep. Todd Tiahrt (R-Kan.), the ATF was barred from requiring gun dealers to take inventories.
"Since the Tiahrt Amendment specifically says that ATF cannot require it," Helmke said, "it really ties their hands before they get started.
"Part of the problem is that ATF has been treated as the illegitimate stepchild. They don't have the funding, they don't have the staffing."