Every year regulators revoke the licenses of about 100 gun dealers for violations of federal law, an extreme step taken only when a pattern of infractions occurs that are considered a threat to public safety. But The Washington Post reports, in a story included in the newspaper’s “The Hidden Life of Guns” series, that it found about 60 documented cases since 2003 in which such businesses have managed to keep operating, often by getting new licensing through relatives, friends or newly formed companies.
That type of re-licensing occurred in about 7 percent of the license revocation cases that took place during the period reviewed by the newspaper.
The 1968 Gun Control Act treats each license applicant as a new entity, even if it covers a company of the same name, with the same employees. As long as the named applicant is a different individual or business entity, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives cannot consider violations that occurred under a former licensee for the business when making decisions about a new application. As a result, gun shops that have been in trouble in the past can be reopened with a clean slate at the same location, under the same name.
“The spirit of the law is that unless the applicant is prohibited, you have to issue a license,” James Zammillo, who retired this year as the ATF’s deputy assistant director of industry operations, told the Post.
On the other hand, Teresa Ficaretta, the ATF’s deputy assistant director for enforcement programs and services, said that the agency has worked on ways to identify and legally block these cases. Doing so, however, is difficult and time-consuming. And denied applications, like revocations, can lead to lengthy court battles.
Licenses sometimes are revoked over such issues as missing weapons, sales without background checks and improperly completed forms. It is the most aggressive move that ATF can make before moving to criminal prosecution, and a rare occurrence: the agency revokes less than one-quarter of 1 percent of licenses each year.
Some gun dealers say having someone else apply for a new license is the only way to keep their family businesses going.
“This is what we do for a living,” said Sandra Mitchell, who secured her own license to sell guns at Gunrunner in Merced, Calif., after the ATF revoked her husband’s license.