More U.S. gun stores closed

131 licenses revoked in 2006 amid closer federal scrutiny of record-keeping

January 02, 2007|By Matthew Dolan | Matthew Dolan,Sun reporter

With little fanfare, the federal government has substantially increased the number of licenses it has taken away from gun dealers over the past five years, according to newly obtained statistics.

The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives pulled federal firearms licenses from 22 gun dealers across the country in 2001. That number increased almost six-fold last year when ATF revoked 131 licenses, statistics show.

Despite the increase, license revocations remain exceedingly rare and the number pales in comparison with the roughly 105,000 people and businesses nationwide permitted to sell firearms and ammunition.

Advocates for stronger gun control seized on the figures obtained by The Sun from ATF, saying that an increase in license revocations is more than appropriate after years of poor regulation.

"It's out of control. There is no responsibility. There is no accountability. There is a problem in the neighborhoods in this country with the drastic proliferation of guns," said Joseph J. Vince Jr., former chief of ATF's firearms division, who now runs a private consulting company specializing in helping local law enforcement agencies track firearms. "The laws are so lax that there is almost no enforcement."

But the news alarmed gun rights advocates who are worried about new emphasis on "technical" paperwork errors that could shut down legitimate gun shops.

"There is a Damocles' sword that's hanging over dealers' heads," said Stephen Schneider, president of the Maryland License Firearms Dealers Association and owner of Atlantic Guns in Rockville. "We're a legitimate business, and yet they feel like they may not be in business the next year for record-keeping violations."

The debate still simmers in Washington, where the House of Representatives passed a bill last fall to revamp enforcement rules for gun dealers, establishing fines and suspensions based on the severity of violations, while still allowing licenses to be revoked under the most serious circumstances.

But the bill, which did not clear the Senate, would also allow for an extensive appeals process and, if a shop owner requests it, would prevent ATF from revoking a license while a case is being reviewed.

The issue took center stage in Maryland last year when ATF officials pulled the license of Sanford M. Abrams, an outspoken former firearms dealer in Baltimore County and former board member of the National Rifle Association.

The license revocation in the nearly decade-old Abrams case was based on more than 900 violations of record-keeping regulations designed to help police track guns used in crimes. Afterward, Abrams said he planned to sell his remaining 700-gun inventory on consignment to an independent shop next door in a building owned by his family.

Today, two other gun dealers in Maryland are fighting to keep their licenses in similar cases.

Starting in August, Bel Air Gun and Pawn in Fallston and the Gilbert Indoor Range in Rockville filed petitions in federal court in Baltimore asking a judge to restore their licenses to sell guns. The government has yet to respond in detail to the gun shops' petitions, and no hearing date has been set.

In the Bel Air case, ATF agents revoked the license of owner Charles D. Scheuerman on June 19.

They pointed to a series of record-keeping errors, including a lack of paperwork on 14 guns brought in for repairs and 57 guns bought for resale, according to court papers. The gun shop on Belair Road failed to keep proper records on 124 firearms, according to excerpts of an ATF report cited in court papers.

Court papers detail similar allegations against Gilbert's owner, American Arms International, accusing the gun shop of selling or disposing of 427 firearms without properly recording how. Its license was revoked in July.

By law, the ATF said last week, it could not provide copies of the license revocation reports on the two gun shops. Richard E. Gardiner, the shops' lawyer and a former staff attorney at the NRA, declined to provide copies.

But in court papers filed by Gardiner, the shops say that the violations were not willful and therefore the shops could not be held liable. Gardiner wrote that any problems were "technical record-keeping errors which were not intentional or deliberate."

The federal courts have generally been unreceptive to such arguments.

In the Abrams case in February, for example, 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.

Gardiner, who is also Abrams' attorney, has asked the 4th Circuit Court of Appeals in Richmond, Va., to review Nickerson's decision.

The attorney said ATF's new vigilance come from an unnecessary increase in manpower.

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