Editorials

ATF unable to do its job on guns

Mike Fiorille, business partner at Get Loaded, serves a customer at the gun store on June 30, 2016, in Grand Terrace, Calif. Inspections of firearms dealers by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives are few and far between because of staff shortages.
Mike Fiorille, business partner at Get Loaded, serves a customer at the gun store on June 30, 2016, in Grand Terrace, Calif. Inspections of firearms dealers by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives are few and far between because of staff shortages. TNS

Every time, yes every time there is a catastrophic episode of gun violence, the first rhetorical defense of the National Rifle Association and other gun rights advocates goes something like this: We have plenty of laws about guns. The problem is the government won’t enforce them.

But Kate Irby of the McClatchy Newspapers Washington bureau, in an extensive report, shows that federal officials, primarily because of a shortage of staffing to do inspections in the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF), are unable to keep up with their own minimum goals to inspect all firearms dealers.

The goal used to be every three years. Now it’s every three to five years. But a 2013 report from the Office of the Inspector General found just 58 percent of firearms dealers were inspected within five years. That’s an astonishing figure. People who deal in deadly weapons aren’t inspected in a timely fashion by federal officials. Automobile inspection rules are more strict.

This is ludicrous, and dangerous. It’s bad enough that no matter how horrific an episode of gun violence is – Newtown being a prime example – Congress is unable to do anything to strengthen gun-control laws despite overwhelming public sentiment in favor of such action. But the gun lobby led by the NRA holds an embarrassing sway over members of Congress with decidedly not-subtle threats, implied and sometimes blatant: Go against us, and we’ll fill your opponents’ coffers with money and you’ll be driven from office.

So are inspections really important? Irby found that fewer than half of those dealers who are inspected really pass inspections — that is, are found to be fully compliant with the rules. And sometimes the rules dealers are found to have broken are serious: not reporting, as they’re supposed to, when they sell multiple handguns to a single buyer, or selling to a person they had reason to think might be prohibited from owning firearms. And what happens when violations are found?

Ah, the hammer really falls. Not. Irby reported that even the most serious violations that could warrant the loss of a license often don’t result in that, and that other punishments are mild.

It’s true, astonishingly, that the ATF isn’t required to conduct inspections of dealers. Dealers have to agree to them, but the ATF, again, doesn’t have to do them. That’s an amazing intentional loophole, one of which the NRA doubtless is proud.

Obviously, a change is needed there first: Require inspections; and then, staff the ATF with enough people to do them.

Careful now. Don’t anyone hold your breath.

How terribly sad that the inspections rules are lax, and for that matter, that other regulations are full of loopholes. And this as a time when President Trump stirred his base at rallies with a vow to protect the 2nd Amendment — an amendment that is in no danger, of course.

But millions of Americans are in danger, from weak firearms laws that time and again have failed to protect innocent victims from killers who murder innocent bystanders and random targets, and are later found to have had mental illness and caches of firearms, a combination that should never be possible.

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