Despite the widespread perception that America's streets are brimming with guns as never before, federal law-enforcement agents are making quiet progress in a four-year effort to keep firearms out of the hands of criminals.
Since President Clinton signed the 1993 omnibus crime bill, more than 100,000 people - including an average of 85 felons a day - have been prevented from buying firearms. And many lethal weapons have become scarce.
But the most important change of all, some observers say, may be a series of presidential directives aimed at improving the screening and regulation of gun dealers. In just four years, the number of federal firearms licenses (FFLs) - the basic federal license needed to sell guns in America - has plummeted by 56 percent.
The result, analysts say, is that federal officials have narrowed the pool of arms sellers to a more manageable level, and eliminated many of the small dealers whose kitchen-table operations were nearly impossible to supervise.
It's unclear what role this crackdown has played in the recent decline of gun-related crimes, and there's no evidence that fewer weapons are being sold each year. But by all accounts, the heightened scrutiny has made it more difficult for unscrupulous gun merchants to operate under the cloak of legitimacy.
"There's been a quiet revolution in national firearms policy," says David Kennedy, a Harvard professor who studies illegal gun trafficking. "And it's taking place in an area where most reasonable people can agree."
Yet the policy shift has some critics. John Velleco, spokesman for Gun Owners of America, argues that the number of "kitchen dealers" is overstated. Most of the FFL holders who lost their credentials, he says, were simply gun enthusiasts who used the permits to buy guns from out-of-state sources at wholesale prices. "All these regulations have done is make it harder for some law-abiding citizens to get guns," he adds.
While federal officials acknowledge that many FFL holders were law-abiding citizens, they argue that others had darker intentions.
"It's difficult to use absolutes," says Raymond Kelly of the Treasury Department. "Fees were ridiculously low. They encouraged people to get licenses for personal use, but they also encouraged people whose motives weren't the best."
The series of executive orders signed by Mr. Clinton in 1993 require gun license applicants to provide fingerprints and photographs for background checks, notify state or local officers of their operations, adhere to all local zoning ordinances, have face-to-face meetings with inspectors from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms (ATF), and pay three-year fees totalling $290.
Before these requirements were implemented, federal officials say, it was simpler to obtain an FFL than to get a driver's license.
According to a Dallas gun dealer who declined to be named, most gun merchants welcome the restrictions as a way of keeping miscreants out of the business.
"I knew of one woman here who used to buy dozens of handguns every year," the dealer says. "I know for a fact that her boyfriend did most of the selling, and he had a [criminal] record a mile long."
Although the new restrictions have surely eliminated many of these suspicious dealers, there's little indication that criminals are having a harder time getting weapons. There are still almost 125,000 licensed gun dealers nationwide, and some 260 million guns in circulation. According to federal estimates, about 47 percent of all households own firearms.
According to ATF analysts, most guns used in crimes are stolen, but the new regulations have helped ATF agents prevent traffickers from obtaining guns from legitimate sources.
When the new restrictions on gun sales were implemented, agents say, many traffickers hired people with clean records to buy guns for them. Without detailed sales records, it was difficult for agents to link weapons to their point of purchase.
Under the new rules, however, FFL holders are required to report the serial numbers of all guns sold in bulk and of each stolen weapon. In addition, many gun wholesalers have voluntarily opened their databases to federal agents.
Armed with this information, the ATF's National Tracing Center in West Virginia has more than doubled its ability to trace guns used in crimes to specific buyers. To the Treasury Department's Mr. Kelly, this is the keystone of the new policies. Last year alone, ATF agents used trace data to recommend more than 2,000 suspected traffickers for prosecution.
In addition, the data have yielded some valuable insights. Working with ATF records, researchers at Northeastern University found that 60 percent of all legally purchased guns used in crimes can be traced to just 1 percent of all licensed dealers.
By concentrating their enforcement efforts at these locations, ATF officials say, they might be able to make a large dent in the flow of black-market weapons.
Already, there is some evidence that these measures are working. According to FBI data, the percentage of murders committed with firearms fell by 11.6 percent.
Part of the credit belongs to the Brady Bill, Dr. Kennedy says, but the impact of the new restrictions on FFLs cannot be discounted - particularly because they've largely escaped the controversy that tends to envelop most gun-control measures.
"We now have a smaller group of essentially mainstream businesses selling firearms," he says. "That's keeping guns out of the hands of felons, but it doesn't prevent anybody who's legally entitled from buying one."