Recently the press reported two items of good news in the fight against gun violence, but even good news reminds us of how far we need to go.
The Seattle Times reported that Brian Borgelt, the former owner of Bull's Eye Shooter Supply, the notorious Tacoma, Washington gun shop that supplied the gun used in the 2002 D.C.-area sniper shootings, had lost his lawsuit seeking to have his firearms dealer license restored. From the opposite coast came the news that Philadelphia's Colosimo's gun shop, which had long been among the nation's leading suppliers of illegal guns, finally was slated to lose its federal dealer's license.
Borgelt hit the headlines after the DC snipers, John Muhammad and Lee Malvo, were arrested after killing ten and wounding four others during three weeks of horror in October, 2002. Authorities traced their Bushmaster assault rifle to Borgelt's gun shop, but Borgelt claimed he didn't even know the gun was missing. Borgelt could produce no record that the gun had been sold, nor that it had been reported missing or stolen (as required by federal law). It turns out that the snipers' Bushmaster was only one of 238 Bull's Eye guns mysteriously missing and unaccounted for in the previous three years. Either Bull's Eye was actively corrupt, or grievously negligent. Either way, Borgelt did not deserve a license to sell guns to the public.
Colosimo's is being closed under a plea agreement with federal prosecutors, who had evidence that the gun shop had knowingly sold guns to three people (some of whom were undercover agents) acting as "straw buyers" -- that is, buyers with clean criminal records acting as intermediaries for those who would have been blocked by Brady Law background checks. Colosimo's had been the subject of community protests for its record of supplying crime guns and its refusal to sign a voluntary Code of Ethics.
Yes, we can breathe a sigh of relief that Borgelt and Colosimo's will not be selling guns. But these cases nevertheless are reminders that our weak gun laws are no match for the problem of corrupt and reckless dealers. In both cases, their licenses were lifted long after they had inflicted grievous harm on their communities. During the period 1997-2001, Bull's Eye ranked in the top 1% of dealers in guns sold and traced to crime; its guns had been traced to homicides, kidnappings and assaults. As far back as 1996, Colosimo's ranked in the top ten dealers nationwide for guns traced to crime. Yes, these dealers finally were shut down. But not before they had supplied the criminal market in their communities for many years.
How guns get into the hands of criminals is no mystery. Crime gun trace data accumulated by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) shows that almost 60% of crime guns originate with about 1% of the nation's gun dealers. Yet irrational statutory constraints on ATF's enforcement authority, inserted in federal law during the Reagan years at the behest of the gun lobby, handcuff the Bureau in taking on corrupt dealers. For example, to revoke a dealer's license, it is not enough to show that the dealer violated the law; the violation must be "willful," a test met only by proving multiple years of multiple violations.
Dealers tempted to break the law have no strong incentive to obey it. Far too many dealers are willing to engage in blatantly illegal conduct. In 2006, New York City conducted "sting" operations in five states, with undercover investigators posing as straw buyers. Twenty-seven of the dealers were videotaped completing obvious straw sales. The problem may be even more acute at gun shows. Recently New York City completed a new undercover investigation, this one directed at gun shows, in which investigators again posed as obvious straw buyers. Incredibly, 16 of 17 licensed dealers approached by investigators at five gun shows willingly sold to apparent straw buyers.
Congress has made a bad situation worse in recent years, by enacting legislation to limit civil suits against dealers and, in the infamous Tiahrt Amendments, blocking an ATF rule requiring annual dealer inventories (which could have prevented the arming of the DC snipers) and preventing public access to the crime gun trace data allowing us to know which dealers contribute the most guns to the criminal market. Now the gun lobby is pushing the ill-named "ATF Reform and Firearms Modernization Act" (S.941), sponsored by Senator Mike Crapo (R-Idaho), which would make it even more difficult for ATF to crack down on corrupt and reckless dealers.
President Obama and Speaker Pelosi both have spoken of the need for better enforcement of existing gun laws. When will the Administration and the Congressional leadership call for new legislation to give ATF the tools it needs to enforce the law against the gun dealers who are flooding our communities with illegal guns?
For more information, see Dennis Henigan's new book, Lethal Logic: Exploding the Myths that Paralyze American Gun Policy.