Gun-control group faults government enforcement
Organization seeks national watch list on irresponsible dealers
WASHINGTON -- About one-fifth of the gun dealers that were the most frequent suppliers of firearms linked to crimes during the late 1990s are no longer in business, although enforcement efforts against dealers are lagging under the Bush administration, a gun-control group said in a study released yesterday. Using federal gun-tracing data, the group, Americans for Gun Safety, found that the vast majority of "high crime dealers" continue to operate with little federal oversight. The group found that most of the dealers had not been federally inspected since 2000 and that the total number of criminal prosecutions of dealers by the Justice Department declined 25 percent in 2002 compared with the last year of the Clinton administration.
The authors identified 120 dealers -- of 80,000 federal gun licensees nationally -- that were the source of guns used in 200 or more crimes between 1996 and 2000. Together, those dealers supplied weapons used in nearly 15 percent of the gun crimes committed during the period.
"If a few fast-food chains were responsible for 15 percent of food poisoning cases in the nation, there is little doubt that government would take steps to alert citizens about which restaurants were responsible," said Jim Kessler, the group's policy director.
The group -- which is opposing legislation pending in Congress that would put new limits on the public disclosure of gun-tracing data -- called for Congress and Attorney General John Ashcroft to create a "High Crime Dealer Watch List" and step up the prosecution of "corrupt stores."
At the same time, the group found that 24 of the 120 high-volume dealers were no longer operating, either forced out of business by regulators or merged with new owners, and in some cases operating on the Internet. A Riverdale, Ill., gun shop, Chuck's Guns, topped the list, with 2,370 crime-related guns sold, according to the study.
A person answering the phone at the shop declined to comment. About half the stores identified were from five states: Indiana, Illinois, Virginia, Georgia, and Maryland.
The group said the fact that a store has sold a gun used in a crime did not mean the seller had violated the law. But the authors argued that stores that habitually sell guns used in crimes should at least be more closely monitored.
The report was based on Bureau of Alcohol, Firearms, Tobacco and Explosives data that surfaced in a 1999 lawsuit by the NAACP in federal court in Brooklyn, N.Y. The lawsuit, which was dismissed, sought to hold a number of major gun manufacturers liable for some of the costs of urban crime.
The 120 companies accounted for 54,694 of the 373,006 "suspicious" guns traced from crimes during the five-year period. A gun is considered suspicious if it has an obliterated serial number or was recovered in a crime within three years of first being sold, among other factors.
Monica Goodling, a Justice Department spokeswoman, defended the administration's record on gun-law enforcement, saying that based on 2003 data, and including state prosecutions, the number of dealer prosecutions is rising.
The National Rifle Association said any dealer breaking the law should be prosecuted, but opposed the idea of a watch list. Chris Cox, the NRA's chief lobbyist, said government officials already have the tools they need to inspect gun stores at any time.
"This is only a gun-control group trying to make themselves relevant in a debate in which they have nothing to say," said Cox. "The focus of the investigation should not be taken away from the person who committed the crime."
Information from the Associated Press was used in this report.