With the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives struggling to regulate the rising number of gun dealers, one state might step up to oversee firearms stores when the federal government can’t.
The Illinois legislature is considering a bill that would create one of the strictest state-run programs in the country for gun store licensing. The legislation would compel employees, not just proprietors, as required under federal law, to undergo background checks and state-mandated training. Retailers would have to install video surveillance systems. And the state would perform inspections on all dealers, in addition to those currently carried out by the ATF.
The ATF regularly fails to meet its goals for inspecting gun stores, a process that can uncover poor business practices and illegal activity. Earlier this year, the agency announced that gun store thefts — a common source of firearms to criminal markets — had hit an all-time high.
The proposal also comes as Chicago is experiencing a surge in gun violence. Most of the weapons used in Chicago gun crimes are bought or stolen in other places and trafficked into the city.
State Senator Don Harmon, a Democrat from the Chicago suburb of Oak Park who sponsored the legislation, said he hopes that keeping closer tabs on gun stores will illuminate how weapons make their way onto city streets.
“We have a handful of gun dealers in suburban Cook County that are the source of a dramatically disproportionate number of firearms recovered at Chicago crime scenes,” Harmon said. “I’m focused on figuring out why that is.”
Last year, Chicago recorded 762 homicides, and more than 4,300 shootings — levels of gun violence not seen in nearly two decades. The city has among the toughest gun laws in the country, and many guns used in crimes come from nearby suburbs with looser restrictions or from out of state. As the city’s violence has escalated in recent years, lawmakers have homed in on a handful of dealers from which a disproportionate number of crime weapons originate. Between 2009 and 2014, one of those stores, Chuck’s Gun Shop in nearby Riverdale, was the source of more than 1,500 weapons recovered by city police. Harmon said he believes his legislation will make it more difficult to divert guns from legitimate businesses to the street by subjecting dealers to more frequent inspections, as well as videotaping possibly illegal purchases, and vetting employees.
Nationwide, there are approximately 140,000 federally licensed gun dealers. Individuals who wish to operate a gun store must fill out an application and pass a background check administered by the Federal Bureau of Investigation. Once approved, license holders are required to maintain “acquisition and disposition” records on the premises that inspectors can consult if they have to trace a firearm used in a crime.
Compared to other industries, gun dealers are subject to very little regulation. Licensees are not required to screen their employees’ criminal histories. Nor are they required to install security measures, like locks or surveillance systems, in their stores to protect from thefts. Most importantly, gun dealers are rarely subject to inspection by the ATF.
The ATF sets a goal of inspecting each firearms vendor at least once every three to five years. However, the agency often falls short of its self-imposed benchmark. A 2013 agency report found that just 42 percent of all gun dealers had been inspected in the previous five years. Since 1975, the agency has never inspected more than 10.6 percent of dealers in a given year. Last year, it inspected just 6.3 percent.
“The ATF just is not able to adequately inspect all of the gun dealers every year,” said Chelsea Parsons, an expert on gun policy at the left-leaning think tank the Center for American Progress.
In January 2016, following mass shootings at a community college in Oregon and a San Bernardino office building, President Barack Obama requested funding to hire 200 additional ATF agents and inspectors to regulate gun stores and enforce federal laws. Congress did not appropriate those funds.
Parsons said the lack of inspections “creates opportunities for guns to go missing.” In 2015, when ATF inspectors visited one Arkansas gun dealer, they discovered nearly 3,000 firearms had vanished from its inventory. Had agents not inspected the store, the ATF would not have known about the unaccounted-for weapons.
Sixteen states require gun dealers to obtain an additional license other than those issued by the ATF. Each state’s program comes with its own set of rules. Alabama, for instance, requires all dealers who sell handguns to get a local license, but doesn’t require more regular inspections. New Jersey, meanwhile, requires extensive transaction records and installation of security systems as a condition of granting a gun dealer a license.
Some Illinois politicians, frustrated with the ATF’s light regulatory touch, have taken matters into their own hands. In 2015, the Chicago suburb of Lyons passed an ordinance requiring dealers in the town to maintain a “do-not-sell list” of customers who bought weapons that were used in crimes, even if the customers themselves are not suspects.
Harmon’s bill passed the State Senate on April 27, and this week was sent to the House Judiciary Committee. The law would subject dealers to oversight by the Illinois Department of Financial & Professional Regulation, which issues licenses for businesses that range from acupuncturists to wholesale drug distributors. It imposes rigorous oversight on establishments that pose far less risk to public health that gun stores; for instance, the department requires all cosmetology schools to undergo inspection before offering classes.
But the legislation does include exemptions. Big-box retailers like Cabela’s or Bass Pro Shops will not be subject to regulation by the state. Harmon explained that a very small percentage of crime guns are traced back to the larger stores and that firearms account for a small share of their revenues. Gun manufacturers would also not have to abide by the proposed licensing plan. That’s because Harmon brokered a deal with the Illinois Firearms Manufacturers Association, which agreed not to oppose the bill in exchange for the exemptions.
Still, the bill faces heavy opposition. The National Rifle Association urged its membership to oppose the bill, which it says will force gun stores out of business. That criticism was echoed by the Illinois State Rifle Association, which called Harmon a “shrewd, vindictive man driven by an obsessive dislike for guns and the people who own them.” After the firearms manufacturers group made a deal with the state senator, it was scorchingly denounced by the pro-gun media. Two of the group’s biggest constituents, Rock River Arms and Springfield Armory, said they were not aware of the deal made by their own trade association.