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An Arkansas pawnshop sold a gun to a man who failed his background check because of an active restraining order.
At a West Virginia pawn shop, 600 guns that should have been in stock couldn’t be found, “a red flag for gun trafficking.”
In Ohio, a gun store transferred firearms without conducting required background checks 112 times.
And a Pennsylvania gun retailer received 45 violations and eight warnings from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, the agency responsible for policing firearms, but was allowed to remain in business. It went on to sell a shotgun to a man who used it to kill four family members.
These were some of the problems discovered in a yearlong investigation that found the ATF often goes easy on errant gun dealers, even going against the recommendations of its own inspectors.
The reporters found dealers who sold weapons to convicted felons and domestic abusers, lied to investigators and falsified records to hide their actions. “In many cases when the ATF caught dealers breaking the law,” the story found, “the agency issued warnings, sometimes repeatedly, and allowed the stores to operate for months or years. Others are still selling guns to this day.”
The investigation was a partnership between USA TODAY and The Trace, an independent newsroom that reports on gun violence.
The project startedseveral years ago when Trace reporter Alain Stephens – then reporting on guns for another outlet – learned that Brady, an advocacy group devoted to ending gun violence, had won a lawsuit to obtain ATF inspection records.
“I knew how useful that information would be for the public,” he said. So he asked for it, and ended up with 2,000 inspection records from July 2015 through June 2017. Trace editor Tali Woodward reached out to us, asking if we wanted to partner on the investigation.
The first, and most time-consuming, step was organizing the reports and building a database of key information. This would allow the public to look up gun dealer inspections in their states after publication, but it also allowed the reporters to uncover anomalies.
A big one: The agency revoked a gun dealer’s license in less than 3% of cases.
“A single violation is enough to shutter a gun shop if ATF officials can prove that the store willfully broke federal regulations,” our report found. “In the vast majority of the cases analyzed by The Trace and USA TODAY, the ATF gave violators the lightest penalty available: a boilerplate warning letter reminding them that their compliance is crucial to ‘reduce violent crime and protect the public.’
“Gun shop owners who violate the rules seem to understand they have little to fear.”
Our analysis found from 2015 to 2017, ATF inspectors recommended an estimated 106 dealers each year have their licenses revoked. But officials downgraded more than half of those recommendations. Only about 43 gun sellers lost their licenses each year.
“One of the key components of our analysis was looking at the dealers that had gotten a lesser penalty than what was originally recommended,” said Daniel Nass, Trace data and visualizations editor. “That’s not something that is just like a checkbox on the reports. That’s something that, on a report-by-report basis, we could only conclude by reading the text of the inspection.”
Each of the 2,000 reports is four to seven pages long. The reporters’ review process took six months.
So why did the ATF go easy on the dealers, after its own inspectors recommended tougher action?
“Part of it is the culture. The ATF has always been afraid of going really tough on gun dealers for fear of angering Congress,” said Trace reporter Brian Freskos. “But then there’s also restrictions that Congress has placed on ATF. So they have to meet a really high burden of proof to shut a store down. There’s also, we saw this borne out in the reports, ATF has a fear apparently of going to court and having to fight these cases in court, which kind of struck me as odd for a regulatory agency.”
Our story found, “In the reports, ATF officials justified backing off by citing the dealer’s age, recent health problems, intentions to retire and, in one case, ‘affluent clientele.’ One dealer got a pass because he had been in business less than a year; another because he had been in business for decades.”
A spokesman for the ATF said the bureau recently hired 20 investigators and is in the process of recruiting 100 additional investigators in the next year, improvements he emphasized had been in the works long before the investigative report was published.
“They feel like their hands are tied, and they’re kind of stuck in the middle,” said USA TODAY reporter Nick Penzenstadler. “They also think normal people don’t care about this process and we went overboard, but I think people do care.”
USA TODAY investigations editor Amy Pyle agrees. One of The Trace staff members recently asked a question that stuck with her.
“She said, ‘Does it make any difference if we create stricter laws and regulations if the existing ones are not being enforced?’ There are actually plenty (of laws) on the books that could make America safe from a lot of gun violence, yet they’re not being enforced.”
That could be changing, at least in New York.
The New York legislature debated a bill last week to crack down on errant gun dealers. Its author, Sen. Zellnor Myrie, praised our “explosive report” from the Senate floor, saying the ATF is a disgrace for not providing stricter oversight of the firearms industry.
“You can read through these reports and see state-by-state the guns flowing to New York,” the Democrat said. “The ATF has not been up to the job, and the industry has been immunized from coming to court. If the ATF won’t take on these bad actors, then the victims should be able to do it themselves.”
The measure passed the lower chamber Tuesday night.
“Our bill passed the Assembly last night and the Senate last week,” Matt Baer, a policy director in Myrie’s office, wrote to us Wednesday. “Now headed to (Gov. Andrew) Cuomo’s desk. Your article had a huge impact here.”
Why was it so effective?
“The investigation pulls back the curtain on the internal machinery of the ATF and shows how the agency’s decisions have real-world impact on public safety,” said Miles Kohrman, The Trace’s special projects editor.
“We’re immensely proud of the project, which wouldn’t have been possible without the powerhouse journalists and editors of USA TODAY.”
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