Bruce L. Jennings, one of the country's largest distributors of handguns, once described himself and his family as "just ordinary people with ordinary lives." At the time, he was standing in front of his $500,000 P-51 Mustang, a World War II fighter plane he named "Saturday Night Special."

In 1985, Jennings, owner and president of a Nevada company that each year distributes tens of thousands of "Saturday night specials" -- cheap, concealable handguns -- was arrested and charged with a felony for hitting his wife at the time, Janice Jennings, and breaking her jaw. Jennings plea-bargained the charge to a misdemeanor, spent 90 days in jail and two years on probation, and paid a fine, according to court papers.

That conviction for a misdemeanor crime of domestic violence appears to make Bruce Jennings ineligible for a federal firearms license, which he must have to operate B.L. Jennings Inc., his gun-distribution business. Yet, Jennings, 50, renewed his license -- federal firearms license No. 98805792 -- just last year.

"Under the circumstances, it does not appear to me that Mr. Jennings would qualify for a federal firearms license, nor would any company in which he is a responsible party," said Jack B. Patterson, former associate chief counsel for firearms for the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms. Patterson, who reviewed court documents regarding the Jennings conviction at the request of The Washington Post, retired from ATF in January 1998. "His receipt and possession of guns would violate the law. . . . Quite frankly, the man has a problem," Patterson said.

Bruce Jennings did not return telephone calls seeking comment on his status with ATF. One of his attorneys, James Sabalos, said he didn't know anything about Jennings's assault conviction. "His company is in good standing with the ATF," Sabalos said. "ATF has properly licensed him."

The story of Bruce Jennings and his ability to retain his federal firearms license and continue selling guns despite his domestic-violence conviction underscores how difficult it is for ATF to police the more than 72,000 licensed handgun distributors and dealers who control the flow of guns in this country.

ATF is the first line of defense in keeping those with prescribed disabling offenses from getting such a license. The agency's job is to make sure that applicants for a federal firearms license have no criminal convictions that would bar them under the Gun Control Act of 1968 and its various amendments from getting a license.

"According to the licensing laws, if a person is disabled by a misdemeanor domestic-violence conviction, he cannot be licensed," said Jeff Roehm, an ATF spokesman. Roehm and others at ATF declined to address specifics about Jennings's license.

"We'd have to get down into the weeds and look at the individual court records," Roehm said. ATF also said it could not comment on whether there had been a recent investigation of Jennings or whether his domestic-violence conviction had been brought to the agency's attention.

Congress voted in 1996 to amend the law to make it illegal for anyone convicted of domestic abuse to "ship, transport, possess or receive firearms or ammunition." The amendment, which essentially added a new requirement for obtaining a firearms license, applied even to those who were convicted before the law was passed. Since the amendment became effective on Sept. 30, 1996, thousands of police officers with prior convictions lost their jobs because they can no longer carry guns.

"My amendment had one simple goal: to keep domestic abusers away from guns," said Sen. Frank R. Lautenberg (D-N.J.), who proposed the change. "I don't want them to be able to sell guns, buy guns, trade guns or ship guns. No access whatsoever. Frankly, I just can't see any legitimate argument for allowing someone who beats his wife or his kids to have access to a gun."

Jennings's criminal record is a matter of public record. According to officials in San Bernardino County, Calif., his conviction has not been expunged or in any other way removed from the record.

Also, in a newspaper interview in 1992, Jennings admitted that he had assaulted his wife. "I lost my cool, and I hit her," he said. "My wife had taken all the bonds, the Rolexes, the diamonds and the gold."

The Lautenberg amendment is unequivocal. Its definition of domestic violence "includes all misdemeanors that involve the use or attempted use of physical force," even if the local ordinance doesn't define it specifically as domestic violence.

After the changes in the federal gun law, ATF notified all licensees of the changes, according to the agency. In some cases, licensees were interviewed in person or by telephone. Fingerprint checks were instituted, and many licenses were not renewed or were red-flagged.

The federal firearms licensing application asks whether the person has ever been convicted in any court of a misdemeanor crime of domestic violence. Firearms licenses must be renewed every three years, and a new application must be filed each time. The penalty for lying on the application is up to five years behind bars and a $250,000 fine.

ATF has not responded to a Freedom of Information Act request for a copy of Jennings's application, which The Washington Post filed a month ago.

Experts said it is not surprising that ATF somehow missed even someone as prominent in the industry as Jennings.

"Systems are fallible, so it could be a technology error," said Robert J. Louden, one of a panel of legal scholars who looked at ATF after a disastrous confrontation with the Branch Davidians in Waco, Tex. "People are fallible, so it could be human error. There's always a hue and cry when the federal government tries to coordinate databases on the basis that it's a violation of civil rights on privacy issues," said Louden, who is the director of the Criminal Justice Center at John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York.

The Jennings family is a storied clan in the gun business. Bruce Jennings's father, George Jennings, started making Saturday night specials after the passage of a 1968 law that banned the importation of some handguns but not their manufacture in the United States.

George Jennings started a company called Raven Arms in 1970. Bruce Jennings followed suit in 1978, establishing Jennings Firearms Inc. George's son-in-law, Jim Davis, started Davis Industries Inc. in 1982.

The Jennings family established their businesses in a ring around the outskirts of Los Angeles and were dubbed "The Ring of Fire" by Garen J. Wintemute, an emergency medical physician at the University of California at Davis who studies the links between guns and crime. In a 1994 study of the companies that also includes Lorcin Engineering, a company started by a high school friend of Bruce Jennings, Wintemute found that the small-caliber handguns made by the companies were found to be connected to crimes 3.4 times as often as those made by other major manufacturers.

In addition, many jurisdictions have outlawed the sale of some of the guns made by these companies because they do not pass certain safety tests. Maryland is one of those states. In California, proposed legislation would make it more difficult for the cheap guns to be made and sold in that state if they could not pass several safety tests.

Bruce Jennings moved from California into the gun-wholesaling business in Nevada, and now B.L. Jennings Inc. resells all the guns made by Bryco Arms, a Costa Mesa, Calif., gun manufacturer. Jennings created Bryco, and the ownership was given to his wife, Janice Jennings -- whose jaw he broke -- as part of their divorce agreement. Bryco made nearly 48,000 guns in 1997, according to ATF figures. Bryco guns are among the most frequently traced to crimes in Washington, D.C., according to ATF.

In the past, Bruce Jennings has been listed as a "responsible party" on the federal firearms application for Bryco. Just two years ago, he was the exhibitor for Bryco guns at an annual show of firearms. Bryco's operator takes telephone messages for Jennings. Sabalos, his attorney, said Jennings no longer has anything to do with Bryco except selling its guns.

"The president [of Bryco] is Janice Jennings," said Sabalos, also an attorney for Bryco. "Mr. Jennings is not an officer, employee or anything. She runs the company." Janice Jennings did not return a call seeking comment.

Under the Lautenberg amendment, a company whose controlling management has a domestic-violence conviction cannot be licensed, according to Patterson. This could pose a problem not only for B.L. Jennings, the gun distributor. If ATF decided that Bruce Jennings in any way controls the management of Bryco, that company could lose its firearms license as well.

CAPTION: Jennings renewed his license despite a conviction for domestic violence.

CAPTION: Bruce L. Jennings's gun-distribution business, B.L. Jennings Inc. of Nevada, is one of the nation's largest.