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Firearms watchdog on short leash
But licensee Jimmie R. Willingham appealed through the agency's internal process. He told an ATF hearing officer that he didn't mean to break the law.
"It's all paperwork," Willingham said. "And it's been neglected. And it's our fault."
The case wound through ATF channels for two years before the revocation was upheld. Willingham then turned to the courts. Almost a year and a half passed after that. It was mid-2005 before a federal judge and a court of appeals had both ruled for the ATF.
"Willingham carelessly disregarded its recordkeeping obligations under the Gun Control Act for more than a decade," the district judge said.
The ATF repeatedly authorized Willingham to sell guns while the revocation played out. Finally, in August 2006, more than a year after the courts ruled in favor of the ATF, Willingham's license extensions lapsed.
The ATF visited to make sure Willingham understood that his license was no longer valid. He told them he was transferring his inventory to his father, who had worked with him at the shop and had secured his own ATF dealer's license for the location. ATF inspectors reported that the father told them he would operate his gun business "inside his son's sporting-goods store."
To obtain a license, applicants need to be 21, cannot have ever been prohibited from owning a gun - as with felons and certain people with disabilities - and must have a fixed address. Initial fees are $200. Licenses last three years. In contrast with the years the agency may spend revoking a license, the ATF by law must approve eligible applicants in 60 days.
Jimmie Willingham declined requests to discuss the licensing matter.
"I'm the owner. I call the shots," he said. "In this day and time I don't want to [tick] them off any more than needs to be. It is worse than dealing with the IRS."
Willingham's Sports has not been inspected since the ATF licensed the father in 2006, records show.
One of the ATF's chief concerns is missing guns. Guns that stores cannot account for cannot be traced to buyers and are a red flag for potential off-the-books dealing.
Nationwide, dealers lose track of an enormous number of guns. Since 2005, 3,847 inspections have documented 113,642 guns that cannot be found. (The Bushmaster rifle used in the D.C. sniper killings in 2002 had gone missing from a gun store in Tacoma, Wash.)
The process is complicated because dealers by law do not have to take inventory. In a 2003 provision authored by Rep. Todd Tiahrt (R-Kan.), Congress prohibited the ATF from requiring dealers to do inventories. As a result, ATF inspectors sometimes have to spend days or weeks poring through a dealer's paperwork and physically matching it to the guns on hand.
"An annual inventory is part of every business," said Zammillo, who retired this year after four decades with the ATF. "Congress said we forbid you to require a business to take an inventory.
"There is a clear need for it for public safety, based on the number of missing guns."
The NRA said requiring inventories would impose a huge cost on the industry and raise prices for consumers.
New legislation, pending before Congress, would further limit the agency's ability to regulate dealers, former and current ATF officials said. Pushed by the gun lobby and called the "ATF modernization bill," it would require a higher standard to prove violations by dealers. The agency, for the first time, would have to show that a dealer knew the law and intentionally disregarded it; in other words, the ATF would have to establish the dealer's state of mind at the time of the violation.
The NRA said the law is necessary because dealers often are harshly punished for trivial paperwork errors.
"ATF always has had and should always have the ability to punish dealers who have willfully broken the law, but short of that we have to inject some common sense," Cox said.
But Zammillo said that inadequate manpower and restrictions on what the ATF can require of dealers have boxed in the agency, and that some of the new legislative proposals would make things worse.
"Congress has tied the hands of the agency that they've charged with protecting the public," he said.
Contributing to this report were staff writer David S. Fallis, staff research editor Alice Crites and staff researcher Julie Tate.