The Gun Market Is Wide Open in America

OF the many questions stemming from the fiery end to the Waco standoff, it will undoubtedly be asked how the Brach Davidians were able to accumulate their stockpile of firearms - which ranged from standard assault weapons to a 50-caliber sniper rifle. It could well turn out that they were aided by the very law enforcement agency whose agents are now sifting through the remains of Ranch Apocolypse - the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms (ATF).

Nearly a quarter of a million Americans hold Type 1 Federal Firearms Licenses (FFLs) - the basic federal license required to sell guns in the US. Virtually anyone over 21 years old who isn't a convicted felon and has $30 can obtain an FFL from ATF, the government agency charged with enforcing federal firearms law.

License holders can order guns wholesale via common carriers in unlimited quantities and are exempt from retail sales laws such as waiting periods and background checks. Only an estimated 20 percent of license holders operate storefront businesses such as gun or sporting goods stores. The remaining 80 percent are "kitchen-table" dealers who operate out of their homes, usually in violation of state and local business and licensing laws and unbeknownst to local law enforcement officials.

During the standoff, speculation arose that at least one person inside the Branch Davidian compound was a licensed gun dealer who had used an FFL to help build the cult's arsenal.

From 1975 to 1992, the number of Type 1 FFLs grew from 146,429 to 245,000 - a jump of 67 percent. America today boasts more gun dealers than gas stations. Traditionally, FFLs have almost always been granted and renewed by ATF, and almost never revoked. Ninety percent of all licensee applicants are not visited or interviewed by an agency inspector before a license is issued by ATF's Atlanta-based licensing office. On average, each year less than 6 percent of all license holders are inspected. In 1990, ATF

revoked only three of the 235,684 Type 1 FFLs held by Americans - one-thousandth of 1 percent.

The result is a bloated, unmanageable universe of illegitimate FFL holders that is impossible to regulate and prone to criminal abuse. For example: During a six-month period in 1990, Gustavo Salazar, a Los Angeles kitchen-table dealer, purchased more than 1,500 firearms and sold them to gang members and criminals. Of the 1,165 handguns sold by Mr. Salazar, only four had been registered in accordance with California law. From February to June 1990, Detroit kitchen-table dealer McClinton Thomas ordered hun dreds of handguns and sold them without completing the required paperwork, including 90 guns to a "big-time dope dealer." Says one storefront dealer of ATF, "They've put crooks in the business of selling firearms."

Despite the gaping criminal loophole FFLs represent, ATF has conducted virtually no research into the role of kitchen-table dealers in criminal gun flow.

In a first-of-its-kind analysis of criminal gun traces in Detroit, the December 1992 Violence Policy Center study "More Gun Dealers Than Gas Stations" found that: one-third of all dealers who had five or more crime guns traced back to them were kitchen-table dealers; the average number of guns traced per kitchen-table dealer was nearly one and a half times that of stocking gun dealers; and in a ranking of dealers by the number of crime guns traced back to them, kitchen-table dealers ranked first, second,

sixth, seventh, eighth, and ninth. The study noted that the Detroit figures provide "disturbing evidence that kitchen-table dealers contribute significantly to criminal gun flow, perhaps at a rate far higher than stocking gun dealers."

Even though ATF has recently begun to show greater enthusiasm for its regulatory responsibilities - the agency has increased the number of compliance inspections, and FFL holders who have not met all state and local business, zoning, and dealer licensing requirements are being told their licenses may not be renewed - its compliance powers are hindered by two factors: the sheer size of the FFL universe the agency itself has created; and 1986's National Rifle Association-backed McClure-Volkmer amendments t o the Gun Control Act of 1968, which placed significant roadblocks in ATF's way.

The study reveals, however, that although McClure-Volkmer has often been cited as the primary reason for ATF's regulatory laxity, under the law the agency is required to deny FFLs to those who do not meet the law's requirement that license holders be legitimately "engaged in the business" of selling firearms. If ATF had enforced the law and refused to license dealers who did not meet the required level of activity, the number of FFL holders today would stand at a far more easily regulated 49,000 licensee s.

Originally designed to aid law enforcement and regulate those who deal in firearms, the FFL has been transformed from a law enforcement tool to a criminal weapon. Whether or not an ATF-supplied license was used to help arm the Branch Davidians at Ranch Apocalypse, a more disturbing question is how are the quarter million FFLs currently in the hands of US citizens being used? The answer is that we just don't know.

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