Federal regulators said yesterday that they have notified Nevada handgun distributor Bruce L. Jennings, one of the country's largest distributors of cheap, concealable handguns known as "Saturday night specials," that his federal firearms license will be revoked because of a prior conviction on charges of domestic violence.
Without a license, Jennings could be forced to divest himself of his gun distributorship, B. L. Jennings Inc., which ships tens of thousands of guns to dealers each year and has made him a multimillionaire with cars, boats, private planes and homes around the country.
Jennings was convicted in 1985 of a felony for assaulting his then-wife, Janice Jennings, and breaking her jaw. He plea-bargained the charge down to a misdemeanor, spent 90 days in jail, paid a fine and was on probation for two years.
In 1996, Congress amended gun laws to make it illegal for anyone convicted of domestic abuse to "ship, transport, possess or receive firearms or ammunition." That change, proposed by Sen. Frank R. Lautenberg (D-N.J.), applied even to those who were convicted before the amendment was passed.
However, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms issued Jennings a new license to do business just last year. The ATF did not move to revoke Jennings's license until after The Washington Post made inquiries about Jennings and filed a Freedom of Information Act request for a copy of Jennings's application. The Post has not yet received a response to that request, but yesterday published an article about Jennings's domestic violence conviction.
"We've sent a notice of the revocation of his license," ATF spokesman Jeff Roehm said late yesterday. But he declined to say why Jennings had been relicensed.
"There is still an active investigation," said Jeff Roehm, a spokesman for ATF. "I can't get into the specifics of why he was relicensed."
James Sabalos, an attorney for Jennings, declined to comment on the licensing matter yesterday. "I'm not at liberty to discuss that information," he said. "And if that information was given to you by ATF, they may have violated a federal law by disclosing that."
Jennings has requested an administrative hearing before ATF on the revocation and will continue operating under his current license until the outcome of the hearing, Roehm said.
Roehm said yesterday that ATF officials reviewed the disclosure laws and felt they could reveal that Jennings has been notified late last month that his license will be revoked, even though they would not disclose it a day earlier.
ATF is charged with, among other duties, licensing and policing the 72,000 handgun dealers and distributors who control the flow of guns in the United States. The agency uses fingerprints and databases to check to be sure that applicants do not have criminal convictions that would bar them from buying or selling guns. Those include domestic violence convictions, illegal alien status, drug abusers or anyone under a restraining order for stalking.
But some have said that ATF has neither the technology nor the manpower to check out the backgrounds of all licensees, leading them too frequently to rely on the honesty of applicants in answering the questions on their license application forms. The penalty for lying on an ATF form is up to five years in prison and a $250,000 fine. The form requires an applicant to write in "yes" or "no" to background questions, such as whether he or she has been convicted of a misdemeanor domestic violence offense.
"Keeping track of the nation's gun dealers and gun buyers is a tremendous responsibility," Lautenberg said yesterday. "People with misdemeanor violence convictions in some cases have tried to skirt the law. In this case, it's very encouraging to see that ATF has fixed what could have been a very dangerous oversight."
Jennings started in the gun business as one of a renowned group outside Los Angeles called the "Ring of Fire" companies, which make guns that sell at a fraction of the cost of guns made by other gun companies such as Smith & Wesson. The inexpensive guns have been traced to crimes -- particularly in cities such as the District -- more than three times as often as other types of guns.
After his 1985 assault conviction and jail sentence, Jennings moved to Nevada where he opened a distributorship. Jennings Firearms, his original company, was signed over to his ex-wife, Janice, as part of their divorce settlement and renamed Bryco Inc.
In the past, Jennings has been listed as a "responsible party" at Bryco, which made nearly 48,000 guns in 1997, according to ATF figures. If the ATF determines that Jennings is part of the management of Bryco, that company could also lose its firearms license, according to the Lautenberg amendment.
Sabalos has said in the past that Bruce Jennings has nothing to do with Bryco. ATF officials declined to comment on whether the Bryco license also is being investigated.
CAPTION: Bruce L. Jennings could lose his gun distributorship.