WASHINGTON – Fewer than half of the licensed firearms dealers in Maryland were inspected in a three-year period, well behind the federal government’s stated goal of inspecting every dealer at least once every three years.
From January 2000 through May 2003, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives inspected only 308 of 654 federally licensed firearms dealers in the state, a Capital News Service analysis of the agency’s data shows.
Still, the pace of inspections in Maryland was better than in the nation as a whole, where ATF records show that a little more than 4 percent of federally licensed firearms dealers were inspected in a given year.
In Maryland, by comparison, ATF inspections in the three-year period ranged from a low of 5.5 percent of licensed dealers in 2001 to a high of 25.5 percent in 2002. But that was little comfort to gun-control advocates, who said the inspections are necessary to keep gun trafficking in check.
“The rate at which ATF is inspecting FFLs (federal firearms licensees) in Maryland seems to be above the national average, but it’s still falling woefully short of what is required,” said Elizabeth Haile, a staff attorney with the Brady Center to Prevent Gun Violence.
The ATF says it does what it can, but the agency simply does not have the manpower to meet its inspection goals. That point was echoed in a July report by the Justice Department’s Office of Inspector General, which said that “due in part to resource shortfalls, the ATF is currently unable to achieve that goal” of an inspection of every licensed dealer in the country every three years.
The ATF’s Baltimore field office, which covers Maryland and Delaware, has just five inspectors for the region, said Kelly Long, a spokeswoman for the Baltimore office. Staff at ATF headquarters answered questions by citing the agency’s printed response to the Justice Department report.
“ATF recognizes it cannot conduct annual compliance inspections of all (dealers) because of the large population of licensees and the small number of inspectors,” that statement said. “For example, it focuses on licensees with a history of non-compliance and licensees with indicators of firearms trafficking, as well as carrying out its random sample inspection program.”
An ATF inspection can be a fairly lengthy process, depending on how big the dealer is. Inspection involves matching each gun in the store to the dealer’s inventory records, and inspecting the paperwork for all guns that have been sold.
In Maryland, the majority of dealers — 554 — are licensed as type-1 dealers, which covers the standard sale of all types of guns. Another 43 are licensed as pawnbrokers who are allowed to accept and sell guns. The remaining 57 are licensed as manufacturers or importers of firearms, ammunition and explosives.
ATF records show that the agency inspected 271, or 49 percent, of the type-1 licensed dealers in Maryland and 19, or 44 percent, of the licensed pawnbrokers. The agency also inspected 28 manufacturers and importers, about half of the total.
Haile said that while “people like to dismiss them (inspections) as record-keeping regulations, the purpose is to make sure the FFL is not a trafficking source.”
But dealers in the state said they generally have no complaints when inspectors do come calling.
Sandy Abrams, owner of Valley Gun in Baltimore and president of the Maryland Licensed Firearms Dealers Association, said inspectors took two weeks to go through his shop during their most recent visit. According to the ATF data, Valley Gun was inspected twice during the roughly three-year period.
Abrams would not say exactly how many guns are in the store, but he did say that Valley Gun has a “significant amount of firearms.” He said that inspectors went through his entire inventory, checked it against his paperwork, and left without much fanfare.
Steve Kottman, general manager of Crazy Louie’s Pawn Shop in Salisbury, reported a similar experience, although he is “a little more mom and pop” than Valley Gun. His May 2003 inspection was one of the latest in the records provided by ATF.
Kottman said that when inspectors showed up, they went through all the guns he had in his store at the time, matched serial numbers to invoices, and checked all his sales paperwork for the previous year. He said it took about half a day, because he only carries 50 to 75 guns at any one time.
In its response to the Justice Department report, the ATF said it plans to begin using statistical modeling to dictate which dealers are inspected as part of a random-sampling program, in addition to going after dealers with a history of non-compliance. There are currently 420 ATF inspectors assigned to audit the nation’s 104,000 federally licensed firearms dealers.
That number, Haile said, says more than anything about how much the ATF’s ability to complete its mission has been diminished by lack of resources.
“ATF’s budget and really, regulatory powers, have consistently been reduced over the past decade,” she said. “They clearly don’t have what they need to be doing what they’re supposed to be doing.”
-30- CNS 12-14-04