By Amit R. Paley
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, July 23, 2006; A01
PARKVILLE, Md. -- Sanford M. Abrams began selling guns from his shop in Baltimore County in 1996 and almost immediately started losing track of them.
In 1997, he couldn't account for 45. In 2001, it was 133. In 2003, there were 422 firearms missing -- more than a quarter of his inventory -- including semiautomatic assault rifles, 12-gauge shotguns and Glock 9mm pistols, according to federal investigators.
This year, a decade after he started losing track of guns, Abrams's store lost its firearms license. But he still intends to sell guns.
The tale of Abrams and his Valley Gun Shop -- which regulators describe in court records as "a serial violator" that has "endangered the public" -- illustrates the difficulty government regulators face in shutting down even those dealers found to have persistently flouted the nation's gun laws. The controversy is the subject of fierce debate in Congress.
Abrams, a member of the National Rifle Association's board of directors, did not dispute the substance of more than 900 violations of federal gun laws filed against his store. But he called them unintentional recordkeeping errors that posed no threat to public safety and said it is impossible for anyone to comply with all firearms regulations.
The dispute has heightened scrutiny of new federal legislation, strongly backed by the NRA, that federal officials said would cripple their ability to revoke gun licenses. The bill, which would make it more difficult to close down gun shops without evidence of criminal intent, also could allow Valley Gun to resume sales of firearms, the lawmaker sponsoring the measure said.
Even if the bill is defeated, Abrams plans to use a provision in existing law to sell 700 guns left over from his shop's inventory at a soon-to-be-opened store called Just Guns, which will sell them on consignment. Its location? Next door to Valley Gun, on property owned by his family.
"What do people want me to do? Grind them up into itty-bitty pieces and make manhole covers out of them? Sorry, I don't think so," Abrams said. "The Second Amendment gives me the right to own and sell guns, and that's what I'm going to do."
Abrams, 57, peppers his conversation with obscenities, many of them directed at the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, and styles himself as one of the most outspoken gun store owners in the country. He has sued ATF three times and claims it has a vendetta against him.
Most days, from opening at 10 a.m. to closing at 6 p.m., he can be found behind the counter, selling unregulated guns and accessories at Valley Gun, a tiny white-brick store in this largely working-class Baltimore suburb. A signed thank-you note from President Bush for campaign work hangs in the store.
The business has been owned by his family since 1954, but its problems with ATF didn't begin until Abrams became president after his father died in 1996.
The decade-long battle between Abrams and ATF has centered on strict federal laws that require dealers to keep detailed records on their inventory and customers who buy firearms so law enforcement officials can trace guns found in criminal investigations to their original purchasers and prevent guns from falling into the hands of criminals.
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."
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."