Political pressure encourages the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives to ignore non-compliant gun dealers across the country, according to a report from the New York Times published over the weekend.
The newspaper combed through more than 100 inspection records and interviewed multiple former law enforcement officials to determine why the agency so often overlooked licensed dealers with multiple serious violations — such as failing to conduct background checks or selling to admitted felons.
Of the 11,000 inspections completed between October 2016 and September 2017, more than half received citations. The agency shut down less than 1 percent, according to the report.
“We’re not selling ice cream here,” said Howard Wolfe, a retired ATF agent with nearly 40 years experience on its industry operations side, including as an inspector and supervisor. “You’re selling something here that if you screw up, somebody can be killed.”
The investigation uncovered a pattern of high-level ATF supervisors downgrading penalties for repeated non-compliance. Often, inspectors — charged with visiting more than 135,000 shops every three to five years — would recommend the agency revoke a license, only to have a senior official override the decision.
“We operated in the idea that we’re not in the business of putting people out of business,” said Earl Kleckley, a former director of industry operations in the ATF’s Los Angeles field office, during an interview with the newspaper. “We have put people out of business, but that was a situation where these business entities had more than one bite of the apple and continued to operate in a violative fashion.”
“We used to kind of bend over backwards,” he added.
The report states the “vast majority” of licensed dealers follow the rules, with most errors resulting from the complicated paperwork necessary for gun sales.
“Some gun shops consider it a pain. They feel like the A.T.F. is the bad guys,” said Steve Clark, owner of Clark Brothers Gun Shop in Virginia. “The whole idea here is to catch bad guys. I want bad guys to not have guns just as much as anybody.”
To read more about the NYT’s investigation, click here.