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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Sanford M. Abrams, owner of Valley Gun Shop, whose license was revoked this year, says,
Sanford M. Abrams, owner of Valley Gun Shop, whose license was revoked this year, says, "The Second Amendment gives me the right to own and sell guns, and that's what I'm going to do."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)

In court, Abrams's attorneys argued that the government should have to prove not only that the company violated the law but that it did so "with the bad purpose to disobey or to disregard the law." The judge disagreed.

"The undisputed fact is that because of [Valley Gun's] lapses, scores of firearms are unaccounted for," U.S. District Judge William M. Nickerson in Baltimore wrote in a Feb. 23 ruling against Abrams.

The next day, almost exactly 10 years after Abrams took over Valley Gun, his firearms license was revoked.

The fight then shifted to Congress. One of Abrams's attorneys, Richard E. Gardiner, testified in March before the House subcommittee that oversees ATF about the need to change the laws that govern revocations of gun licenses.

One week later, Rep. Howard Coble (R-N.C.), the subcommittee chairman, introduced a bill that would, among other things, allow a gun store whose license has been revoked to remain open during any appeal. It also would require a much higher burden of proof -- almost the same one Abrams proposed in his court case -- before ATF could revoke a license.

"It could be crippling," said David DiBetta, an 18-year veteran of ATF who is president of the Federal Law Enforcement Officers Association's ATF division.

"That bill would make it virtually impossible to enforce the nation's gun laws," said Joseph J. Vince Jr., former chief of ATF's firearms division.

Coble, who received about $13,000 in campaign contributions from the NRA between 1999 and 2005, said the legislation would prevent ATF from abusing its power. The bill, HR 5092, gained momentum last month when House Republicans added it to the American Values Agenda, their list of high-priority legislation aimed at energizing social conservatives.

"I am not anti-ATF, but I am anti-heavy-handed law enforcement," Coble said. "I don't see that this is going to emasculate, or even weaken, in any way, the ATF. That's certainly not the intent."

When asked whether Abrams, who has appealed his case, could continue selling guns if the bill passes, Coble said: "I think he probably could." He said the impetus for the bill was not Abrams but ATF behavior at a gun show in Richmond, although he could not recall details about the incident.

Two days before the legislation was introduced, incorporation papers were filed for Just Guns, a store that will open next door to Valley Gun in a property owned by Abrams's 80-year-old mother.

Abrams, who has sold some of the store's inventory after transferring it to his personal collection, plans to sell about 700 firearms through consignment at Just Guns, which will open this week and sell only firearms. Valley Guns may carry only unregulated merchandise.

Acting as an agent for his mother, Abrams signed the lease with the new shop's owner, James D. Morganthall Jr., and the two have a no-compete clause. But each said he had no financial stake in the other's business. The goal is for every customer to visit both stores in one trip.

"This is probably the first time this type of situation is occurring," Abrams said. "It's a new solution for an old problem."

ATF officials said they approved the arrangement because Morganthall, who also owns Jim's O.C. Outdoors, a Baltimore County firearms dealer, has what Cohen called "a blemishless compliance history." Morganthall said the store has not lost a single gun because his wife, a CPA and former bank auditor, constantly monitors the inventory.

"It's not impossible to keep up with the paperwork," he said. "It just takes a lot of time and money to do it correctly."

On a recent weekday morning, a twentysomething man with curly hair walked into Valley Gun, filled with cartridges, fireproof safes and shotgun scopes. He briefly glanced at the weapons on display -- black-powder rifles, antebellum muskets and BB guns -- all unregulated by the federal government.

"Do you have regular handguns?" he asked the man at the counter.

"Next week," Abrams replied. "We'll be right next door."

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