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Gun Seller's Case Reveals Hurdles Of Enforcement

Sanford M. Abrams, owner of Valley Gun Shop, whose license was revoked this year, says,
Sanford M. Abrams, owner of Valley Gun Shop, whose license was revoked this year, says, "The Second Amendment gives me the right to own and sell guns, and that's what I'm going to do." He still sells unregulated weapons and accessories. (By Robert A. Reeder -- The Washington Post)

When inspectors arrived at Valley Gun in 1997, they discovered incomplete sales records and dozens of guns listed in store inventory records that could not be located. Officials were alarmed and sent a warning letter threatening to revoke the store's license. They returned two years later and found more instances of improper sales and unaccounted-for guns. Revocation was threatened again in a warning conference.

"If the dealer can't account for the guns, how did they get out of the store?" asked Michael D. Campbell, spokesman for ATF's Washington field division. "Were they being sold off the books? Are they being given to criminals? That's always a concern."

By 2000, ATF had identified Valley Gun as one of the 41 most "uncooperative" dealers in the country in responding to requests for information needed to trace guns linked to crime. Abrams sued the agency after it asked him to turn over records, but the courts eventually ruled against him.

An inspection the next year revealed more than 100 missing guns, failures to perform proper background checks and improper sales records on 419 of 933 transactions examined. Under normal circumstances, the agency would move to revoke his license. But because of Abrams's position on the NRA board and his previous lawsuit against ATF, agency officials chose to hold a highly unusual second warning conference, according to two senior ATF officials who spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the case.

"We were actually bending over backwards to be fair to him," said Jeffrey A. Cohen, assistant chief counsel for ATF.

Then a 2003 audit found that several machine guns had been sold without proper records; a gun had been sold without a proper background check; and 422 guns -- 28 percent of the 1,524 that should have been in his inventory -- were missing. Some of the guns were later found to have been sold but not properly accounted for.

Valley Gun was then ranked 37th of 80,000 dealers in the country for firearms linked to crime, according to a 2004 study by Americans for Gun Safety. Almost 500 guns associated with crime were traced back to the store, the study found.

ATF decided in 2004 to revoke Valley Gun's license. But Abrams, who has not been charged with any crime, filed a federal lawsuit to challenge the agency's decision. ATF officials allowed him to continue selling guns as the case was heard.

In two hour-long interviews at his store, Abrams repeatedly attacked ATF officials as deceitful sloths who want to put honest gun dealers out of business. "If they remove all the licensees," he said, "they don't have to worry about working anymore."

He said it is impossible not to make mistakes when filling out the nine forms required for the sale of a firearm, some of which have 37 sections. "And some of the forms are going to go missing," he said. "Forms fall behind the counter. Or maybe someone throws it away."

Abrams said "mathematics and logic tells you you're going to have to make errors." He added: "I just screwed up paperwork. . . . There is no crime here."

When asked how it is possible to lose track of hundreds of guns, Abrams responded angrily that law enforcement officials constantly lose firearms. "When the police are perfect," he said, "then you have the right to ask that question."

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