Tuesday, September 7, 2010;
ONLY ABOUT 10 percent of the nation's 100,000 licensed gun dealers are audited each year by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF). The ATF cannot fine wayward dealers; its only tool at the moment involves revoking a miscreant's license. And that happens only about 100 times annually.
But even this level of scrutiny rankles the National Rifle Association, which is pushing for legislation that threatens to gut the ATF's already limited ability to keep illegal guns off the streets. The bill, formally known as the ATF Reform and Firearms Modernization Act, is making headway in both houses of Congress, with hearings likely to take place in the Senate this month. The bill should be dramatically rewritten or scrapped altogether.
Gun dealers make some legitimate arguments for revamping the ATF. Dealers say that the laws governing their business are often so vague that the ATF could pounce on an innocent typographical mistake to put their licenses in jeopardy. More precision in the language would help dealers know what is expected and give the ATF a solid legal basis to act. The bill would also allow the agency -- apparently for the first time -- to exact a sliding scale of fines.
But the bill goes much further than is necessary in reforming the law -- and in some instances does not go far enough. The legislation would allow the ATF to act only against dealers who "willfully" commit violations. At the same time, it would force the ATF to provide repeated warnings before moving against wayward dealers. The bar for action is set so high that it would make it all but impossible for the ATF to press forward with any case. These provisions are so alarming that even the Obama administration -- long AWOL on sensible and much needed gun regulations -- has raised concerns.
The bill in some instances would give gun dealers who had broken the law a free pass. For example, a dealer whose license had been revoked would be given 60 days to liquidate his inventory. Mayors Against Illegal Guns, a 500-strong coalition led by New York's Michael R. Bloomberg and Boston's Thomas M. Menino, rightly notes in opposing the bill that this provision would allow dealers the unacceptable opportunity "to transfer guns into their private inventory and sell them off without background checks."
As for the fines: Dealers could be fined a maximum of $15,000 a year even when they commit multiple "serious" violations. This is such a relatively paltry amount that it would be unlikely to have much impact.