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Gun stores linked to crime could face greater scrutiny under new bill

Gun Dealer Accountability Act would require ‘bad actor’ stores to maintain inventory, undergo more inspections

Gun shops that have had their products linked to violent crime would receive greater scrutiny from federal regulators under a new bill, set to be introduced in Congress Wednesday, that gives federal authorities more power to inspect stores suspected of skirting existing gun laws.

The Gun Dealer Accountability Act, sponsored by Wisconsin Democrat Gwen Moore, would allow the Bureau of Alcohol Tobacco Firearms and Explosives (ATF) to do more frequent inspections and require lists of inventory from gun stores that have illegally transferred guns or have served as the source of 10 or more weapons used in crimes in the previous two years. The bill doesn't specify how long the period of increased scrutiny would last, but Moore's office said that it could last for as long as two years. 

Federal law prohibits ATF from releasing public records of what weapons gun shops have in their inventory, and the agency is permitted to inspect gun stores only once a year.

In 2007, about 30,000 guns went missing from stores according to the Brady Center, a gun control advocacy group. “Firearms that ‘disappear’ from gun shops with no record of sale are frequently trafficked by gun traffickers and prized by criminals because the guns are virtually untraceable,” according to the Brady Center. 

According to a 2004 report by the American for Gun Safety Foundation, 57 percent of the guns used in crimes come from just 1 percent of gun stores.

The vast majority of “gun dealers are really great business owners, and they keep illegal guns off the street,” Moore told Al Jazeera. “It’s really clear there are bad actors. This legislation creates flexibility for the [ATF] to go after bad actors.”

Shoddy paperwork, improper background checks and “straw” purchases by people who buy guns for others who can’t legally own them, often felons, can all contribute to guns winding up in the wrong hands, Moore said. She blames stolen guns, in part, for a recent increase in violent crimes in Milwaukee, the biggest city in her state.

Milwaukee has seen an almost 50 percent increase in shooting deaths so far this year. Between Jan. 1 and Oct. 27 of 2014, there were 70 deadly shootings. So far this year, there have been 105, according to a tally maintained by the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel. 

“It's one part of the equation,” said Eric Harris, a spokesman for Moore. The bill “will certainly help address a critical component to the violence.”

An ATF spokesman said that gun stores are required to keep an “acquisition and disposition” log that registers when and what kind weapons come into the store and when they leave. However, there is no requirement that stores produce an inventory for federal agents on demand.

“It’s not the way you think it is, like at Walmart where they can pull up on a computer everything that’s in the store,” said an ATF spokesman. “There’s not like a running inventory of how many guns you have. If the log is not accurate when a robbery or burglary occurs, there’s nothing we have to fall back on. We’re taking them at their word.”

The spokesman confirmed that its agents are only allowed to inspect stores once a year, and “most gun shops aren’t even inspected that often.”

Moore’s bill would increase the frequency of inspections, but the text of the bill doesn’t specify a number.

The measure is likely to face significant hurdles in Congress. The National Rifle Association and other gun rights groups have successfully blocked several recent efforts to introduce new restrictions on gun ownership.

In 2005, Congress passed the Protection of Lawful Commerce in Arms Act, preventing almost all lawsuits against gun stores or manufacturers. A plaintiff would have to prove extreme negligence on the part of the gun dealer to bring a civil case. 

David Rosenbloom, a professor of public health at Boston University who studies gun violence, said that the bill was a step in the right direction but not a cure-all.

“I think anything that increases accountability on what happens to guns is an improvement,” Rosenbloom said. “In the current system, Congress has mistakenly held the gun manufacturers harmless for the damage that they cause, and so anything that puts accountability into the system is an improvement.”

Moore hopes that a bill focused on “bad actor” stores might gain bipartisan support.

Earlier this month, two police officers severely injured by gunshot wounds were awarded $6 million in a lawsuit against the Milwaukee gun shop that sold the weapon that wounded them. The jury found that the gun shop violated several laws in selling the gun. 

“I think that it’s important for all gun dealers to maintain an inventory, but because we have the terrific challenge of the NRA being able to influence so much gun legislation here, we decided to be conservative and to just narrow this requirement [to bad actors],” Moore said. The bill also makes it harder for gun stores tied to crime guns from reincorporating under a new name.

About a decade ago, there was more information available to the public about guns and guns stores connected to crimes. That changed in 2004, when Rep. Todd Tiahrt, a Kansas Republican, introduced a budget amendment prohibiting the ATF from disclosing to the public which gun stores are tied to guns used in crimes.

Moore’s law would undo that amendment in the case of gun stores found to be violation of law. “This bill would temporarily restore the ATF’s power to ensure that guns do not simply ‘disappear’ and end up on our streets,” Moore’s office said in a press release explaining the bill.

Rosenbloom, of Boston University, said the Tiahrt amendment was passed because of NRA pressure. “There is no justification for it,” he said.

The NRA did not reply to a request for comment for this story.

Tiahrt, who served in Congress until 2011 and now works as an aerospace industry consultant, defended his amendment as a way to ensure the privacy of law-abiding gun owners and dealers. He said the federal authorities already have enough data to figure out what “bad actor” stores are.

“This is legislation that is, part of it, redundant and the other part intrudes in the privacy of law-abiding citizens, and I would oppose it strongly,” Tiahrt told Al Jazeera. The measure “singles out” the gun industry, he said, arguing that knives and propane tanks have also been used in crimes but retailers selling those products don’t receive similar scrutiny.

Tiahrt said that information on guns used in crimes is available through the Freedom of Information Act, which allows private citizens to petition the government for public records. “Some of the people who are advocating for this are just plain lazy,” Tiahrt said. “They want government to do all this work for us.”

According to the Congressional Research Service, the amendment prevents “ATF from releasing trace data for any purpose other than a ‘bona fide’ criminal investigation,” and then only to law enforcement. It also prevents the information from being used in civil suits against gun dealers.

To get a nationwide picture, a private citizen or organization would have to file FOIA requests for more than 17,000 law enforcement agencies. FOIA requests can take months for agencies to complete, and sometimes require petitioners to pay for printing and processing. Moore's office said their bill would centralize the process.

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