The Biden administration is moving to crack down on “rogue gun dealers” who break the law, part of a sweeping violence prevention strategy unveiled weeks after an investigation by The Trace and USA TODAY revealed that federal authorities had routinely allowed gun shops to remain in business despite their lengthy histories of noncompliance.
President Joe Biden announced the multi-pronged strategy alongside Attorney General Merrick Garland at the White House on June 23. The plan includes a new policy directing the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives to seek to revoke the licenses of gun dealers the first time they are found to have willfully committed any one of five specific violations, including transferring firearms to convicted felons and other prohibited people, as well as failing to run background checks on customers.
The Trace and USA TODAY found that even after inspectors recommended that dealers lose their licenses, agency higher-ups followed through only about 40 percent of the time. The majority of dealers were given another chance to correct their violations and remain in business.
The ATF Catches Thousands of Lawbreaking Gun Dealers Every Year. It Shuts Down Very Few.
“Today, enough rogue gun dealers feel like they can get away with selling guns to people who aren’t legally allowed to own them,” Biden said. He added later: “These merchants of death are breaking the law for profit. They’re selling guns that are killing innocent people. It’s wrong. It’s unacceptable.”
The administration is also taking steps to increase resources for law enforcement and community-based anti-violence programs. The president urged cities and states to spend federal coronavirus relief funds on hiring police officers and expanding violence intervention programs. And the Justice Department is launching five new “strike forces” to combat firearms trafficking into New York, Los Angeles, and other major cities.
The White House also wants to improve coordination between federal and state and local law enforcement. The plan notes that the ATF has designated regional points of contact for local leaders to report problem gun dealers so that the agency can prioritize them for an inspection. Starting next month, the ATF will share inspection data with the 16 states that impose their own regulations on gun stores so that they can determine whether certain dealers need to be shut down for violating state laws.
The ATF will also start posting more detailed information online about its inspection findings and actions taken to implement the new “zero tolerance” policy for gun dealers that break the law, a step the administration said was designed to promote transparency and accountability.
The new policies could herald a sea change at ATF, which is responsible for policing the 78,000 gun dealers, manufacturers, and importers in the U.S. The Trace and USA TODAY found that out of all the inspections conducted by ATF between 2010 and 2019, at least a third — 35,500 — found dealers had violated state and federal firearm laws. More than 81 percent of violators received no penalty or a written warning. The ATF sought revocation of only 580 violators, or 1.6 percent.
Some dealers went years, or even decades, without an inspection, The Trace and USA TODAY found. The ATF’s inability to visit gun dealers on a more consistent basis is a problem the agency has blamed on a lack of staffing, and it has tried to make more efficient use of resources by focusing on gun dealers that sell large numbers of firearms that are used in crimes or exhibit other signs of possible wrongdoing.
The president’s new plan aims to formalize that tactic, saying the ATF will be conducting training and is issuing guidance on which factors investigators should consider when prioritizing dealers for inspections. Meanwhile, his administration is pushing Congress to approve enough funding for the ATF to add investigators in each of its 25 field divisions.
On June 24, the Senate Judiciary Committee is set to vote on Biden’s ATF director nominee, David Chipman, a retired agent who has called for reforming the agency’s inspection program. If Chipman clears the committee, the full Senate will still have to sign off before he can assume the position.
Biden’s announcement reflects the president’s desire to make good on his campaign promises to tackle gun violence despite Congressional gridlock over expanding background checks to private firearm sales and banning assault weapons, two policy prescriptions the president has repeatedly urged lawmakers to adopt.
In April, Biden ordered his administration to tighten the regulations governing untraceable “ghost guns” and stabilizing braces, accessories that can make pistols more lethal.
As cities around the country continue to endure historic levels of shootings, the White House reiterated that states and localities may use funds from Biden’s $1.9 trillion coronavirus-relief package, the American Rescue Plan, for community-led violence prevention programs.
“These are local programs that utilize trusted messengers, community members and leaders to work directly with people who are most likely to commit gun crimes or become victims of gun crimes,” Biden said. “These interrupters turn down the temperature, halt the cycle of retaliation, connect people to social services. And it works.”
A Treasury Department guidance released ahead of the president’s announcement specifies that states and cities may spend coronavirus-relief funds on employment opportunities for at-risk youth, housing, and mental health care services, and running summer education programs, among other anti-violence initiatives.
Eddie Bocanegra, the senior director of the Rapid Employment and Development Initiative, a violence reduction program in Chicago, hailed the president’s plan and said the influx of funds would help anti-violence groups increase the quantity and quality of services for people in need.
“For every dollar police departments have for public safety, nonprofits get maybe a penny or two,” Bocanegra said. “This is an opportunity to increase the resources in the nonprofit sector, particularly in communities that are grappling with these issues and are working to curb this violence.”
The administration has laid the groundwork for a collaborative of 15 jurisdictions — including Baltimore, Chicago, and Los Angeles — that have pledged to use a portion of their coronavirus-relief funds for community violence intervention. The White House said it will facilitate “peer-to-peer learning and provide technical assistance” to members of the collaborative, who will also receive training from experts provided by a group of philanthropic organizations that actively fund anti-violence work.
Bocanegra said he hoped the collaborative would help identify strategies that work and gaps that need to be filled.
“At the end of the day,” he said, “we really need to be more strategic in the way we’re addressing these issues so that we can be smarter in the tactics we use.”