USA TODAY US Edition

Calls for US crackdown on problem gun dealers

ATF routinely gives only warnings for violations

- Nick Penzenstad­ler Brian Freskos

Lawmakers are pointing to a recent investigat­ion by USA TODAY and The Trace as proof that more should be done to regulate the country’s gun sellers.

When the New York Legislatur­e took up a bill to crack down on errant gun dealers last week its author, Sen. Zellnor Myrie, praised the “explosive report” by The Trace/USA TODAY. Myrie said the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives is a disgrace for not providing stricter oversight of the firearms industry.

“You can read through these reports and see state-by-state the guns flowing to New York,” the Democrat said. “The ATF has not been up to the job, and the industry has been immunized from coming to court. If the ATF won’t

take on these bad actors, then the victims should be able to do it themselves.”

U.S. Rep. Joe Morelle, a Democrat from upstate New York who has authored legislatio­n to bolster the regulation­s governing gun dealers, vowed to continue pushing for budget increases to help the ATF conduct inspection­s on a more consistent basis. He said the USA TODAY/The Trace investigat­ion showed him there were systemic issues within the agency that couldn’t be solved by money alone.

The USA TODAY/The Trace investigat­ion found that inspectors routinely document violations at shops around the country, only to be overruled by higher authoritie­s to issue warning letters instead of revoking licenses.

“Compliance relies in large part on a degree of sanctions,” Morelle said. “Unless there’s a sea change in attitudes at the agency itself, all the money in the world and all the additional investigat­ors won’t matter.”

A spokesman for the ATF said the bureau recently hired 20 new investigat­ors and is in the process of recruiting 100 additional investigat­ors in the next year, “to increase inspection­s to help ensure compliance and appropriat­e enforcemen­t action.” The positions begin at a salary of $37,674.

Morelle said he urged President Joe Biden’s pick to lead the ATF, David Chipman, to make reforming the inspection­s program a priority if the Senate confirms his nomination.

During a May 26 Judiciary Committee hearing, Chipman, a former ATF agent who now works for the gun control group Giffords, faced scrutiny from a bevy of Republican senators. They called into question how his activist roles could impact his tenure as an ATF director.

Gun rights groups, including the National Rifle Associatio­n and National Shooting Sports Foundation, have ramped up lobbying in recent days, particular­ly to moderate senators who could sway the anticipate­d 50-50 partyline vote.

Chipman has declined to comment on The Trace/USA TODAY findings, but pledged during his confirmati­on hearing to review gun shop inspection­s if approved as the next ATF director. The investigat­ion drew the attention of gun blogs and prominent voices. Cam Edwards, editor of BearingArm­s.com, accused reporters behind the project of being anti-gun. He called into question the timing of publicatio­n the same week as Chipman’s confirmati­on hearings.

“While the new series by USA TODAY and The Trace is meant to bolster the argument that the ATF needs a permanent director like Chipman to whip agents into shape and to close gun shops that have repeatedly run afoul of the agencies regulation­s, you could also make the argument that, if the agency is truly as soft on wayward gun dealers as the reporters claim, that an ATF veteran like Chipman has been part of the problem,” Edwards wrote for the site. “After all, he spent 25 years as an ATF agent, including several years where he was head of the Firearms Division.”

In Philadelph­ia, City Councilman Kenyatta Johnson said the USA TODAY/ The Trace report underscore­d a need for the ATF to curb illegal gun running and make sure weapons are not winding up in the wrong hands.

“I have not seen ATF in the city of Philadelph­ia addressing this issue aggressive­ly or with a sense of passion and dedication,” said Johnson, who chairs the council’s Special Committee on Gun Violence Prevention. “Hopefully the new president and the new head of ATF will get them to take that type of approach.”

Johnson also wants the ATF’s Philadelph­ia Field Division to do a better job of coordinati­ng with state and local law enforcemen­t to curtail the violence that is taking a disproport­ionate toll on the lives of young Black and brown men.

Over the past 17 months, gunfire has injured or killed more than 800 Philadelph­ians under the age of 21. Mayor Jim Kenney has proposed spending $34 million on anti-violence initiative­s in the 2022 fiscal year that begins July 1, but the violence has prompted Johnson and other city leaders to push to increase that amount to $100 million using federal coronaviru­s relief funds.

“We have to take an all-hands-ondeck approach to tracking down where illegal guns are coming from and solving the problem of gun shops and gun shows selling firearms to people who may not be qualified to own them,” Johnson said. “That means local law enforcemen­t, state law enforcemen­t, and federal law enforcemen­t need to be involved.”

In New York, Myrie’s bill would expose gun dealers to civil litigation if plaintiffs can prove they have become a public nuisance – the legal standard that has been used to sue opioid manufactur­ers in recent years. He cited The Trace/USA TODAY investigat­ion as evidence that the so-called Iron Pipeline firearms traffickin­g corridor from southern states to the New York metropolit­an area remains a problem.

“You have to stop the flow of illegal guns or this problem of shootings will persist,” he said. “There’s one set of rules for East Flatbush in Brooklyn and another for shops in Ohio, Florida and Georgia, it seems.”

The New York effort takes direct aim at the 2005 Protection of Lawful Commerce in Arms Act that generally prohibits civil lawsuits against gun manufactur­ers and dealers. One of the exceptions it seeks to exploit is known as the “predicate exception” allowing suits alleging violations of state public nuisance laws. The legal battle has been examined by several federal appeals courts that reached different conclusion­s.

The National Shooting Sports Foundation opposes the measure.

“The (arms act) keeps activist trial lawyers and gun control groups from placing the blame on the industry for the criminal misuse of legal firearms that are lawfully sold,” Larry Keane, the group’s senior vice president, wrote. “Sen. Myrie’s proposal would be akin to a state allowing a lawsuit to be brought against Ford for the actions of a drunk driver that killed someone after getting behind the wheel.”

 ?? LM OTERO/AP ?? The ATF says it is hiring to conduct more inspection­s.
LM OTERO/AP The ATF says it is hiring to conduct more inspection­s.
 ?? JOSE F. MORENO/THE PHILADELPH­IA INQUIRER VIA AP ?? Philadelph­ia City Councilman Kenyatta Johnson, right, hopes the ATF will work closely with the city.
JOSE F. MORENO/THE PHILADELPH­IA INQUIRER VIA AP Philadelph­ia City Councilman Kenyatta Johnson, right, hopes the ATF will work closely with the city.
 ??  ?? Chipman
Chipman

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