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ATF's oversight limited in face of gun lobby
"We have not always agreed with some of ATF's priorities," Cox said. "We want to help ATF focus on its core mission . . . which is finding, apprehending, arresting and punishing people who break the law."
In defense of its role investigating gun crime, the ATF pointed out that last year its agents made 10,892 arrests, including bringing cases against 4,076 gang members.
But the ATF does not have enough personnel to fully inspect the firearms and explosives dealers under its charge. The bureau has about 600 inspectors to cover more than 115,000 firearms dealers - about 55,000 collectors and about 60,000 retail sellers.
Justice Department Inspector General Glenn Fine found in 2004 that the ATF had inspected only 4.5 percent of U.S. gun dealers and rarely shuts one down. At that rate, he noted, inspecting all the dealers would take more than 22 years.
Former ATF official James Zammillo said that when he assumed the newly created role of deputy assistant director of industry operations in the wake of the inspector general's report, he took steps to expedite and streamline oversight. He said he prioritized dealers for inspection in three- and five-year cycles based on several factors, including analysis of their gun traces and compliance histories.
Since the report, the ATF has stepped up the pace of inspections, going from 5,000 in 2005 to 11,000 in 2009. By law, the ATF can inspect dealers for compliance only once a year. But despite improvements, officials acknowledge that, on average, dealers are inspected only about once a decade.
"We are under-resourced," Melson said earlier this year at a Las Vegas gun show for manufacturers and dealers. "We don't have the people to do inspections every three years. It takes eight to nine years to inspect."
The ATF's hands are often tied when it comes to regulating dealers, according to interviews with current and former agency officials, as well as thousands of pages of internal files obtained through Freedom of Information Act requests.
When inspectors document persistent or severe violations, they can issue warning letters or hold warning conferences with licensees. When problems are critical, they can move to take away the license. Dealers, however, can drag out the process for years and sell guns the entire time, The Post found.
On average, the agency revokes or denies renewal of 110 licenses annually, records show. Another 160 licenses on average are surrendered by dealers threatened with revocation. Overall, that's less than one-half of 1 percent of licensed dealers. Criminal prosecutions of corrupt dealers are even more rare, about 15 in a typical year, records show. Simply opening an investigation of a gun dealer requires clearing high bureaucratic hurdles, including the writing of a detailed proposal that must be approved by supervisory agents.
"It's a lot easier to close a restaurant kitchen than a gun store," said Lew Raden, the former ATF assistant director for enforcement.
Willingham's Sports in western Alabama found a way to stay open even after the ATF revoked its license. Along a stretch of a highway in the small, riverfront city of Demopolis, the store lost track of more than 180 guns and failed more than 700 times to correctly log firearm sales over a dozen years, records show. The ATF took the rare step in early 2002 of moving to revoke the store's license.