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Published Wednesday, July 26, 2006, in National Review Online.

A Fair Shot: New legislation aims to ease the unfair burden on gun-store operators.

John R. Lott, Jr.*

It is tough operating a gun shop under harassment from the federal government and unjustified media attacks. But the harassment might soon get a little better, as today the House Judiciary Committee starts marking up a bill by Representatives Howard Coble and Bobby Scott to ease the burden on gun merchants.

According to Justice Department numbers, since Bill Clinton was elected president in 1992, the number of federally licensed firearms dealers in the United States has plummeted by 80 percent. Kmart no longer sells guns, Wal-Mart just recently stopped selling guns at a third of its stores, and tens of thousands of other gun shops have gone out of business. With all the talk of the recent legislative success by gun owners, they have been winning some battles but possibly losing the war. Gun-control advocates may be the ones winning where it really counts.

Part of the drop in licensees has been due to fees imposed by the federal government. Many license recipients were in the business of selling only a small number of guns, and the fees made that practice unprofitable.

The constant breakdowns of the “instant” background-check system during the Clinton administration halted guns sales for hours or even days at a time, costing stores untold sales and raising their costs. Even by the end of the Clinton administration, from September 1999 to December 2000, the system was down about one hour for every 16.7 hours of operation. The breakdowns often came in big blocks of time, the worst during a period covering 60 hours during two weeks in the middle of May 2000. Try running a business where neither customers nor sellers are ever informed on how long outages are expected to last.

Fortunately, the background-check problems are now fixed. And there are no new fees. So why are gun shops still going out of business? There were about 100,000 license holders at the end of Clinton’s last term. By today that has been cut almost in half.

The Washington Post’s front page on Sunday illustrated the problems with both the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives abuses as well as the media’s out-of-control attacks. The piece examined the supposed abuses of Sandy Abrams’s gun shop in Baltimore, a shop he took over from his father in 1996.

The second paragraph scarily points out that “there were 422 firearms missing — more than a quarter of his inventory.” The count listed guns as missing if there were simple paperwork mistakes (e.g., two digits in a number transposed). Taking all these mistakes since Sandy Abrams took over the story in 1996 and comparing them to his current inventory, not the 25,000 guns that he has sold over the last decade, borders on journalistic malpractice. It surely doesn’t provide readers with an accurate understanding of what is happening.

So what is the right number of missing guns? Abrams claims it is 19. Nineteen out of 25,000 isn’t great, but .076 percent is a lot less scary than 25 percent, a difference of 329-fold. More importantly, the government has apparently never found any of those guns to have been used in a crime. As Abrams notes, “we have had the paperwork and successfully traced every gun whenever [the government] asked.”

Is this the type of gun dealer who should lose his license? The BATFE thinks he is a prime candidate. Nine hundred rules violations over ten years certainly sounds impressive. That is until you realize that violations include writing “Balt.” instead of “Baltimore,” or that the government-approved ledger was apparently missing a column. Of course, the information the column was supposed to record was redundant anyway.

Part of the problem may simply be a government agency that manipulates numbers to make the problem seem a lot worse than it is so that it can get more funding. But Coble and Scott’s legislation would reduce the discretion currently available to the BATFE and allow licensees who face revocation to be heard before a neutral administrative judge.

This legislation may not entirely reverse the massive decline in licensed firearms dealers, but it would be a promising a start.

Mr. Lott is the author of "More Guns, Less Crime" (University of Chicago Presss, 2000) and "The Bias Against Guns" (Regnery 2003).

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