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Gun shop lost license, but can sell inventory

Store was cited for 900 violations of record-keeping rules


His store once sold about 3,000 firearms a year. "Human error" was the way Abrams described most of his store's mistakes. "I'm not doing something illegal," he said.

But in February, U.S. District Judge William M. Nickerson in Baltimore ruled that while Abrams "may challenge the numerousness or seriousness of its violations of federal firearms law, [he] makes no credible argument that there were no violations."

"The undisputed fact is that because of [Valley Gun's] lapses, scores of firearms are unaccounted for, and therefore, untraceable," the judge ruled.

Nickerson rejected Abrams' plea to be able to buy and sell guns while his appeal is pending. So Abrams' lawyer filed a new lawsuit in Washington, asking another judge for relief.

Abrams complained that the ATF in Maryland made threats of what would happen if he tried to sell guns.

"If Mr. Abrams were to engage in dealing firearms without a license, the inventory involved in these violations would be subject to seizure and forfeiture and Mr. Abrams could be subject to criminal prosecution," ATF lawyer Jeffrey A. Cohen wrote to Abrams' attorney, according to court papers.

But the office of the U.S. attorney for the District of Columbia said that Abrams could sell off his existing stock legally if he didn't buy new weapons.

"It has been ATF's long-standing position that (in cases such as plaintiff's) when a dealer loses his license he can dispose of his inventory by selling those firearms without" breaking the law, wrote Assistant U.S. Attorney Alan Burch.

The news that Abrams, whom federal prosecutors in Maryland labeled a "serial violator" of gun regulations, can still sell hundreds of guns alarmed critics such as Vice of the Brady Center.

"This isn't a personal inventory," Vice said. "This is an inventory of a gun shop."

Abrams, who has served as vice president of the Maryland Licensed Firearms Dealers Association, remains a board member of the National Rifle Association, a leading gun rights lobbying group. He was elected last year to another three-year term.

Among the NRA's legislative priorities is H.R. 5092 - the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives Modernization and Reform Act of 2006.

Its sponsor is Rep. Howard Coble, a North Carolina Republican. The bill would revamp enforcement rules for gun dealers, establishing fines and suspensions based on the severity of the violation, and still would allow a license to be revoked under the most serious circumstances. But the bill also allows for an extensive appeals process and, if a shop owner requested it, would prevent the ATF from revoking a license while a case is being reviewed.

Coble's bill, introduced in early April, cleared a subcommittee that he chairs a month later. Coble, now in his 11th term, has received $12,950 from the National Rifle Association's political action committee since 1999, according to Federal Election Commission records.

Given the crowded legislative schedule and the rapidly shrinking number of days before lawmakers head home to campaign for re-election, the bill might have languished. But Coble got a boost late last month from House Republican leaders, who added his bill to their American Values Agenda, a list of high-priority legislation aimed at courting conservative voters in the months leading up to the fall elections.

Coble said in an interview that he was unfamiliar with Abrams or his case. But records show that days before Coble introduced his bill, Abrams' attorney, Richard E. Gardiner, testified on the gun licensing issue before Coble's subcommittee.

Yesterday, Coble insisted that his legislation grew out of complaints of overzealous ATF patrols at gun shows in Richmond, Va. The agency's efforts upset potential customers and show organizers, who complained of harassment.

"I'm not anti-ATF, but I am anti-heavy-handed law enforcement," Coble said.

He said he was troubled by the all-or-nothing setup of the current law, which he said has no middle ground between doing nothing and moving to revoke a shop's license.

If the offense is minor, "rather than yanking a guy's license, maybe a slap on the hand might be better," Coble said.

Rep. Robert C. Scott, a Virginia Democrat who worked with Coble to craft the bill, said the legislation would enhance enforcement for minor infractions while still allowing the ATF to close down a dealer who has flouted the law.

"If you have a serious violation, you should have your license revoked," Scott said.

Coble said the bill is not retroactive, so even if it does win approval from Congress and President Bush, it would not affect current cases.

"It's not for me," Abrams said yesterday. "I'm toast. It's for the next dealer down the road. Whatever happens to this bill will not affect me."

But Vice remains skeptical that Abrams is gone for good. The bill, he said, could be used to reinstate Abrams' license - at least temporarily - during his legal appeal.

"And he could reapply for a license tomorrow," Vice said.

matthew.dolan@baltsun.com gwyneth.shaw@baltsun.com

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