Freedomnomics

Article published July 27, 2006, at Washington Times.

Firearms sales and red tape

By John R. Lott, Jr. and Maxim C. Lott

It is tough operating a gun shop with harassment from the federal government and unjustified media attacks. But the harassment could get a little better with legislation by Reps. Howard Coble and Bobby Scott which may fix some of the problems.

Since 1992, when Bill Clinton was elected president, 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 one-third of its stores and tens of thousands of other gun shops have gone out of business. With all the talk of recent legislative success by the National Rifle Association, it is winning some battles but may be losing the war. The gun-control movement may ultimately be winning where it really counts.

Part of the drop in licensees was simply due to fees imposed by the federal government. Many licensees used the licenses only for their own personal purchases or only for selling a small number of guns, and the fees made that unprofitable.

The constant breakdowns of "instant" background-check systems during the Clinton administration halted gun sales for hours or even days at a time, costing stores untold sales and causing them to raise 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 of how long outages are expected to last.

Fortunately, the background-check problems are fixed. And there are no new fees. So, why are gun shops still going out of business? There were still about 100,000 license holders at the end of Mr. Clinton's last term. 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 article examined the supposed abuses by Sandy Abrams' gun shop in Baltimore, a shop he took over from his father in 1996. The second paragraph 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 store 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? Mr. Abrams claims it is 19. Nineteen out of 25,000 isn't perfect, but .076 percent is a lot less scary than 25 percent -- a difference of 329 fold. More importantly, the government has apparently never connected any of those guns to crimes committed. As Mr. 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 10 years certainly sounds impressive -- that is until you realize that violations include writing "Balt." instead of "Baltimore" or that his 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 fight for more resources. But Messrs. 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.

Over the years we have had Chicago's Mayor Richard Daley's undercover sting operations with video but no audio of the conversations in the gun shops. This was perfect so that CBS' "60 Minutes" could twice show the tapes with the city's version of what was said. Their legal cases against the sellers were flops, but the press had lost interest by then.

The Coble-Scott legislation may not reverse the massive decline in licensed firearm dealers, but it is a start.

*John R. Lott Jr. writes frequently on the issue of crime and guns. Maxim Lott is an intern at Fox News.

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