The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives revoked gun store licenses at a higher rate in 2022 than in any year since 2006, according to data published by the agency on October 4. The numbers provide the first indication that federal investigators have cracked down on lawbreaking gun dealers following guidance from the Biden administration ordering the agency to take a stricter tack during inspections. 

Altogether, the agency revoked 92 licenses in 2022 — roughly 1.3 percent of all the dealers inspected. The total more than triples the number of licenses revoked in 2021, when a similar number of dealers were inspected. Another 136 dealers received warning conferences, the steepest penalty inspectors can recommend without revocation.

The pandemic hobbled the ATF’s ability to conduct compliance inspections at gun stores, and the total number of inspections has yet to rebound to pre-pandemic levels, the data shows. Investigators conducted just over 7,000 inspections in 2022, compared to more than 13,000 in 2019. Still, they revoked more licenses in the past fiscal year than in any year since 2008.

David Chipman, a former ATF agent who now works as an advisory board member for the Center for Gun Violence Solutions at Johns Hopkins University, said he is encouraged by the data. “The trendline is good,” he told The Trace. “I think we have to applaud the agency for holding the industry accountable — for doing its job.” 

Biden nominated Chipman to lead the ATF in April of last year, but withdrew his nomination five months later after debate about Chipman’s involvement in the gun violence prevention movement threatened his confirmation.

The ATF’s inspections division is tasked with ensuring that gun dealers comply with federal firearms laws. When inspectors visit a store, they verify that proper records are retained, inventory is accurate, and that customers have undergone background checks. If they find evidence that a dealer has violated the law, they can recommend penalties ranging from verbal or written warnings to the revocation of a store owner’s license to sell firearms.

But reporting shows that the ATF’s inspections program has long been lenient and conciliatory toward gun dealers. An investigation by The Trace and USA TODAY published last year involved a review of documents from more than 2,000 gun store inspections over two years, and revealed that inspectors frequently let repeat offenders off the hook for serious violations of federal law that put guns in the hands of domestic abusers, drug traffickers, and violent felons. In other cases, after inspectors recommended a license for revocation, superiors downgraded the penalty — in many instances without justification. 

In June of 2021, the Biden administration took steps to curb this leniency, issuing a guidance that ordered inspectors to implement a zero tolerance policy and revoke the licenses of dealers who willfully sell to prohibited purchasers or sell guns without conducting background checks, among other violations. Then, in July of this year, the Senate confirmed Steven Dettelbach to lead the ATF — the agency’s first confirmed director in seven years. 

Already, Dettelbach has announced that he plans to sharpen the agency’s gun dealer inspection protocols, using gun crime data to identify dealers whose guns most frequently turn up in crimes. It’s a technique the agency has implemented in the past, and it’s unclear precisely how, or if, such data is currently being used. Regional breakdowns in the newly released inspections data show that some ATF field divisions revoked no licenses, despite conducting more than a hundred inspections. Others revoked as many as 4 percent of the licenses they inspected.

The new inspections data does not conclusively show whether either of these developments altered the way the ATF investigates gun dealers, but it suggests that inspectors were more aggressive than in years past. 

When asked whether the ATF had taken a stricter stance toward dealers in 2022, agency spokesperson Erik Longnecker told The Trace he could not speculate without specific case details.

Joshua Scharff, senior counsel and director of programs at Brady, the violence prevention group, told The Trace that he, too, was optimistic about the new figures, but he emphasized that the public needs more transparency to assess whether ATF inspectors are holding lawbreaking dealers sufficiently accountable.

“What we really need is the transparency to see gun dealer inspection reports as they’re issued, to see how the system is working in real time,” Scharff said. “Other agencies of the federal government routinely release inspections on their websites in a timely manner — we should expect the same of the ATF.”

The new data also puts to rest a rumor, widely circulated within the gun-rights community this summer, that revocations had jumped a staggering 500 percent after the Biden administration’s zero tolerance guidance went into effect. The Second Amendment Foundation, a gun-rights group, first reported the figure, citing an ATF presentation at an industry conference in April. Two months later, 24 Republican members of Congress cited the report in a letter to the ATF demanding that the agency hand over data on firearm license revocations. 

The letter, however, cited an increase in “revocation proceedings,” rather than outright revocations; the process of revoking a gun dealer’s license can take years, often involving lengthy court proceedings. In some cases, dealers will choose to forfeit their license to the ATF instead of having it revoked.

When asked directly about the 500 percent increase in revocations, Longnecker, the ATF spokesperson, would only confirm that there had been 92 revocations issued in the 2022 fiscal year. “The revocation process can be a lengthy legal process,” he said. “Those licenses recommended for revocation might often exceed the number of licenses actually revoked.” 

The ATF does not publish figures on the number of licenses engaged in revocation proceedings at any given time.