Gun dealers over a barrel thanks to strict laws
By Michael Doyle / Bee Washington Bureau
WASHINGTON -- Tougher laws and stricter enforcement cost nearly 200,000 gun dealers their licenses since the mid-1990s, a new study shows.
Led by California -- the state with the steepest decline -- the number of federally licensed firearms dealers has fallen 79% nationwide since 1994. In that year, Congress adopted new gun-control measures that still spark fiery debate.
"The sharp drop in gun dealers is one of the most important, and little noticed, victories in the effort to reduce firearms violence in America," said Marty Langley, an analyst with the Violence Policy Center, a gun-control advocacy group funded by the Chicago-based Joyce Foundation.
The decline -- which includes many small-time dealers -- is undeniable. What it means is more controversial.
Bill Mayfield, a longtime Fresno gun dealer, said he believes federal regulators have been instructed to eliminate as many gun dealers as possible to make it easier to track gun owners.
"It looks good, but what they're doing is pursuing an anti-gun, anti-American point of view," Mayfield said.
Nationwide, 245,628 U.S. residents had the so-called Type 1 federal firearms licenses in 1994, compared with 50,630 now.
In California, there were 20,148 license holders in 1994. This year, there are 2,120 -- an 89% decline.
It's unclear how many of those dealers gave up their licenses or didn't reapply.
The number of firearms licenses fell by 80% or more since 1994 in 15 states including California. Even the state with the smallest reduction in licensed dealers -- Montana -- saw a 68% decline.
"As the number of licensed dealers has dropped, it's become more manageable for the [Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives] to enforce," Langley said.
The decline in licenses began in 1993 after Congress approved the so-called Brady Bill, named for the former White House press secretary who was grievously wounded in a 1981 presidential assassination attempt. The 1993 law -- and a sweeping 1994 law that included many crime-fighting measures -- imposed new rules.
Firearms licenses that once cost $10 a year now cost $200 initially. License applicants now must submit photographs and fingerprints and inform local police of their plans.
In many cases, the study noted, those losing licenses were so-called "kitchen table" dealers, who operated from their homes rather than formal storefronts.
"While many 'kitchen-table dealers' obtained their license merely to enjoy lower prices and evade the perceived red tape ... others recognized it as a dramatic loophole in federal law that could easily be exploited to facilitate high-volume criminal drug-trafficking," the Violence Policy Center said.
The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives also has been more aggressive in monitoring license holders, gun dealers and gun-control advocacy groups agree.
Officials have insisted that license holders be "actively engaged in the business" of selling guns if they are to hold a license.
Some are upset about the federal government's approach.
Jeff Huth, general manager of Valley Rod & Gun in Clovis, said that it has been difficult to stay in the gun business since the tougher laws went into effect.
Huth's store, which has been open for 13 years, no longer sells handguns because of strict state rules that require staffers to certify that the purchaser is capable of handling the gun safely, he said. It's not worth the liability risk to continue selling handguns, he said.
The store offers rifles and shotguns through special order, Huth said.
The store has been able to survive, he said, because it is more diversified than many other gun shops, selling fishing, hunting and camping equipment.
Mirroring the decline in gun dealers, gun-related crimes have fallen, as have the percentage of Americans who say they own firearms. In 1993, for instance, the Justice Department recorded more than 1 million nonfatal crimes involving firearms. By 2005, the number of nonfatal gun-related crimes had fallen to 419,000.
"The fact that there are fewer gun dealers out there means there are fewer sources of guns for street criminals," Langley said.
Gun-control advocates hope to further tighten regulations. One idea is to permit federal authorities to conduct more than the single compliance inspection a year that's currently allowed.
Any such proposal, though, faces tough political hurdles in a Congress that has not shown significant interest this year in renewing the gun debate.