Guns end up in the hands of violent criminals in many ways, and one of the most frequently cited arguments against gun control is that people who intend to use guns to commit murder will be able to do so even if law-abiding citizens who want to buy guns for legitimate purposes are forced to jump through more hoops. But the fact is that many “crime guns” are originally purchased at federally licensed gun dealers, rather than acquired on the black market. And according to the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, a small handful of dealers—just 1.2 percent—are responsible for supplying more than half of them. To be clear, this doesn’t necessarily mean these dealers are knowingly colluding with criminals—lots of crime guns are bought by “straw purchasers,” who pass them on to traffickers and who are not always easy to identify—but it does suggest something’s not working.
An eye-opening report from the Trace—a new website that specializes in coverage of gun issues—reveals why these gun dealers tend to escape the oversight of law enforcement: Last year, just 7 percent of the 140,000 licensed gun dealers nationwide were subjected to ATF inspections.
According to the Trace, oversight rules prevent the ATF’s 780 inspectors from checking in with a given dealer more than once a year unless they have a warrant to do so. But in reality these inspections happen even less frequently than that: Though the ATF has set a goal of making sure that every dealer in the country is inspected every three to five years, statistics show that in 2013, just 42 percent of gun dealers had been subjected to an inspection in the previous five years.