Gun stores with troubled pasts

Dec 14, 2010

Even when the ATF revokes a gun store's license for public safety violations, most remain open under different names. Sari Horwitz, James Grimaldi and David Fallis discuss their latest piece, which describes how difficult it is to actually close down a gun store. It is part of a year-long Washington Post investigation, The Hidden Life of Guns.

Hi there,

Thanks much for dropping in. We would be happy to take any of your questions or comments about the past two days of stories in our ongoing look at the "Hidden Life of Guns." Monday, the story took a in-depth look at Mexico and gun trafficking and today's story explored what happens in some cases when the ATF revokes a dealer's license, and the merchant stays in business through other licenses.


As Mexico drug violence runs rampant, U.S. guns tied to crime south of border

Your article claims that gun dealers "play musical licenses" and that ATF must engage in a "dance of revocation" in order to prevent alleged gun trafficking. Yet you have not identified a single case where the ATF has revoked the license of a so-called replacement licensee. Nor have you connected any of these revocations to any instance of so-called gun trafficking. So, what's the problem? It seems that a reasonable analysis of your data would indicate that new licensees do not repeat the mistakes of their predecessors. And you have not explained how violations of ATF record-keeping rules is connected with gun trafficking. Conflating documentation errors with "lost firearms" is stacking innuendo upon fallacy, isn't it?

Hi there - thanks much for reading. The point of today's story was not to link stores to gun trafficking, but to explore the licensing laws and show what happens in some cases when violations that threaten public safety (whether related to gun trafficking or not) go uncorrected, and the ATF finally revokes a store's license (fairly rare event). As we had in the story, of the ones that were revoked and then relicensed, ATF records that we obtained show that about 1/3 of those new, replacement licensees have gone on to have additional violations, and 1/4 have been warned by the ATF that the violations, if uncorrected, would potentially lead to revocation of these new licenses.  Some, on the other hand have not logged additional violations. And, quite a few of these shops, records indicate, have yet to be reinspected. This is a broader problem for the ATF - inadequate manpower to inspect licensees on a more timely schedule. Licensees complain, and rightly so, about not seeing inspectors for many many years, which does not help them if they are looking for guidance on what they are doing right or wrong.


Gun dealers often stay in business with new licenses after ATF shuts them down

Is there a book or guidelines of plain English rules and regulations ATFE provides to gun dealers so they know exactly what they can and can't do that meets paperwork standards?

Hi there, yes, the ATF publishes quite a bit of paper pertaining to the rules and regulations that dealers have to follow, gun sales requirements, reporting requirements, record-keeping requirements, etc.  Dealers are supposed to have copies of all this material. 

I understand that there is an industry-supported program run by lawyers called FFLGuard that works with delaers on compliance issues and raises the bar on how the dealer's business operates. What do you know about it?

Yes, I am also aware of FFLGuard and that some dealers participate in the program. Generally, based on what I know, that is the goal of the program -- they work with dealers to help them to proactively do more than the bare minimum required by law to avoid any problems and stay in compliance.  As an aside, I can tell you that the vast majority of dealers want to do just this. They care about complying with the law and being responsible with regard to their merchandise. It is very rare for the ATF to revoke a license and typically involves many many years of uncorrected violations that the ATF feels threaten public safety. To put a revocation in perspective, there are roughly 60,000 dealers and about 110 revocations a year, less than 1/4 of 1 percent.

Why do the stores sell bulk bullets? These are the items which cause the damage. I would like to see bullets sold singuarly, and that would stop random mass shootings, as firing of one bullet becomes more selective in being expelled in stupidity. And to rebuy a bullet you must return the empty case and state why it was used . A trail of three months would lower gun violence by 40 percent.

Thanks for reading. I don't know how practical or popular that would be, but you can sure write your local lawmakers and suggest that.

A store here in Milwaukee is consistently in the top 10 nationwide in selling guns used to commit a crime -- including several shootings of police officers lately. The local paper has been covering it for a couple years now including the shenanigans of the owners. My question relates to the process of reporting. The Milwaukee paper has covered this for a few years, the Washington Post has been investigating, other papers have as well. The same was true a year or two ago with BPA -- (plastic food lining shown to cause hormone disruptions) -- several papers all covering the issue. I am curious about how these "trend" stories get started. Where do you get your leads on these larger scale investigative pieces, and why does it seem that several papers around the nation pick up the trend at the same time? Understand -- I am not questioning the value of any of these pieces. I quite appreciate seeing attention paid to important issues across the board and being able to read reporting from different parts of the country. But I am curious about the background to the investigation/story selection process. Thanks.


The work on the Post investigation, The Hidden Life of Guns, began in 2009, based upon an idea by investigative editor Jeff Leen. Jeff has been talking about doing something looking at guns for as long as James has been on the investigative team, going back ten years. In late 2008, he decided to jump in. It ended up taking longer than any of us expected, but then we are all on call for a variety of breaking news stories and assignments that occur while we work on projects. (Cheryl W. Thompson took time off the project to fill in at the White House, for example.) All of us on the project have done other things during that time.

Jeff's idea was to take a look at the 2003 Congressional act to exempt crime-gun data from the Freedom of Information Act. Part of our jobs as investigative reporters is to uncover secrets. We broke the secrecy imposed by the congressional act and learned about stores who had many guns traced back from crime scenes both locally in the Washington area and nationally. 

The Milwaukee paper has done very good work, particularly about Badger gun store, and we encourage people to check them out.

Why does the Post keep reporting the long debunked claim that the majority of guns used by the cartels are from the U.S? The often repeated claim is really only for "traced" firearms, but they account for only about 15 percent of the guns seized by Mexican police. The overwhelming majority of weapons used by the cartels are full auto machine guns and hand grenades which are surplus from the civil wars in Central America, but they don't have traceable serial numbers like U.S. made firearms.

We went with what the ATF has said in interviews, congressional testimony and through reports published by the U.S. General Accountability Office, Congressional Research Service and the Department of Justice's Inspector General's Office.

So have either rof you ever done any of the above or even used a firearm? Or are you the typical WP reporter!

Hi there,

I don't know what the "typical" Washington Post reporter is. We have a very diverse group of writers with a wide range of interests and backgrounds. I love the outdoors and grew up in Oklahoma where I spent a lot of time fishing and around hunters (though I am not a hunter, myself). As a kid, we always had a gun in the house growing up because of my father's career as a district attorney.  I spent time at a gun range not too long ago trying out a Glock 9 mm and had a great time!

Your series had made it abundantly clear how difficult it is for the ATF to trace firearms, investigate straw sales, and successfully prosecute corrupt dealers. Your recent piece on the "Fire Sale Loophole" reveals that even after their licenses are revoked, dealers can continue to sell firearms WITHOUT conducting background checks and transfer their licenses to third parties to stay in business. Given these facts, what is your opinion of the NRA-drafted "ATF Reform and Firearms Modernization Act" currently pending in Congress, which would diminish the ATF's authority and enforcement powers even further?

You present the arguments against the bill pretty well, and the ATF and several former ATF directors strongly oppose the bill. The NRA, gun dealers and the industry want the bill because they feel that the ATF tries to sanction them for petty infractions and paperwork errors.

Just a comment on the suggestion to sell bullets one at a time and require the empty casing to be returned to buy another bullet. As a licensed gun owner it would sure make trips to the gun range pretty boring if I could only take one round with me. The same goes for hunting. I think this person needs a reality check. A small number of greedy gun shop owners make all firearms owners look bad. But other industries have the same issues. We need to enforce current laws before coming up with crazy new ones.

Thanks for weighing in. A day at the range would require hundreds of purchases, so could be problematic.

Just wondering if there is a link between the gun banner advocate Josh Horwitz and Sari Horwitz? Josh Horwitz has a FFL and runs the Violence Policy Center in DC. Just wondering. And did you see this reponse by the lawyer for Carter's Country Stores? "Let me tell you something about Carter's Country. They have been co-operating with ATF from the get go," says attorney Dick Deguerin who represents Carter's Country owner, Bill Carter. Deguerin says the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms asked Carter's Country to complete transactions, even when sales people strongly suspected the weapons were headed to Mexican drug gangs. Source.  Seems to me that the Post is trying to push gun control by "highlighting" that some stores get their license revoked, but only through insinuation. Some dealers say their licences were revoked for clerical errors. Last question: Is it true that a customer who writes "Y" to a question on the 4473 and means "YES", that the store can get dinged for use of a common abbreviation? And a lot of "dings" could lead to revocation write since that is sloppy paperwork per the BATFE? Thank you.

Sari is not related to Josh Horwitz, and has never met him or talked to him. 

James and Sari wrote a story today quoting Dick DeGuerin, Carter's attorney, about the grand jury investigation into a salesman at Carter's Country. James talked to Bill Carter twice -- in person -- and asked him for a comment. Carter referred him to Bill Book, his civil lawyer, whom James called and left phone messages. Mr. Book did not return the calls. Mr. Carter never mentioned DeGuerin. If Mr. Carter had done so, James would have called him. Today's story says that Carter's Country is cooperating with the ATF, according to DeGuerin. 

The criminal grand jury investigation into Carter's Country began in January.

The Post is only reporting the facts as we get them. We pursued the list of stores that had the most traces to Mexico. We had no pre-conceived notions about what we would find. When we got the list, we researched the  dealers thoroughly and interviewed most of them to get their sides of the story.



How many of the stores that have sold the most gun-linked crime are just very large shops that sell many guns, so even a small fraction ends up being a lot? How do their records compare to local "champion" Realco?

Yes, many of the stores on the national list have a high-volume of sales. The ATF uses other indicators to check on the stores, such as what they call "time to crime." Time to crime is the time from purchase to when it is recovered by police. Our story includes comments from the gun dealers about how they think they got on the list.

Do you have any plans to run a series on the long track record of the ATF abusing gun owners and firearms licensees? These are common examples: A gun owner in the midwest railroaded and sent to prison when a semiautomatic firearm malfunctioned and the ATF classified it as a machine gun. Licenses revoked because the yellow form was filled in with some abbreviations, e.g. SLC for Salt Lake City, even though the intent was clear. Private owners prosecuted for selling a part of their gun collection because ATF decided that they must be dealers. Or would you prefer to just focus on the "roughly 60,000 dealers and about 110 revocations a year, less than 1/4 of 1 percent."? Do you think that your newspaper will display the same concern for law abiding gun owners and gun dealers - US citizens, mostly - that it shows for the terrorists in Guantanamo Bay? Will this be reflected in your news coverage and your choice of stories?

Hi there,

I have no idea where our reporting will take us, but we worked very hard to include the varied and diverse perspectives of the dealers at every juncture. In today's story, I specifically included quotes and an anecdote from a dealer who alleged he was written up by the ATF over clerical errors.

I can tell you that in interviews with former ATF officials,  they say the ATF has taken steps over the past 5-6 years to improve enforcement consistency nationwide, i.e. to make sure that standards are applied evenly region to region when it comes to writing up dealers for violations and moving to revoke licenses. The uneveness in enforcement (that I think has led to complaints like those you are citing) is somethign that former ATF officials have recognized and tried to address over the last half of this decade. What would help this is if the ATF could get dealers on a more routine inspection schedule, but this requires more manpower.

I think dealers have a very valid point when they complain about not being inspected for eight years at a stretch. Without a visit from an inspector, the dealer doesn't get any guidance or reinforcement.


Well done on the article series. I am continually frustrated by my fellow firearm owners'/enthusiasts' wholesale reflexive resistance to badly needed firearms legislation. I blame the NRA, who long ago crossed the line from advocacy to zealotry. Their inane "slippery slope" arguments, thrown up against some critically needed firearm legislation, is counter-productive, and, in my opinion, a major contributing factor in illegal gun use. Responsible gun owners should be out front and visible in efforts to ensure the reduction in the availability of illegal gun to persons who use them for criminal purposes. The fact that in Virginia, a firearm can be sold by a private individual with no records or check of the purchaser is grossly irresponsible. There is simply no excuse for it. Further, why not have ballistics test and a reasonable and accessible database for firearms that could help in an investigation when a crime with a firearms is committed? Paranoid and delusional rantings about jack-booted government agents confiscating my guns as a result are pathetic.

We are planning a story that looks at the NRA.  You are representing, certainly, one side of this very contentious issue. The other side would disagree, of course.

If you are heading into the U.S. from Mexico, every car is questioned and at least looked at. It isn't the same coming into Mexico. The Mexican government can complain all they want, but until they allocate the resources needed for proper border inspection, nothing will change. We have to watch out for Mexican drugs, human smugglers, etc. dont tell me they can't search for guns in cars/trucks coming into their country.

Thanks for your comments.

Are there any minimum requirements for a "gun show"? What makes it a "gun show" versus 2-3 dealers in a rented ballroom?

That is a good question - I am not sure about that, it may depend on the state in question and what is required. In Virginia, for example, gun shows typically feature licensed dealers selling alongside hobbyists.

Is the ATF restrained from permanently banning problematic dealers? What happens when revoked, generally? Is there a minimum time before the dealer can reapply for a license? Or can an employee in the store become a strawman by applying for a license to replace the revoked one?

Good point. I am glad you asked --  There is no minimum amount of time according to the law that a dealer is forced out of business. In other words, a dealer who is revoked could reapply the next day. However, if it is the same "applicant' and he or she does this, it would be fairly easy for the ATF to deny the application because there is no question that is the same entity, and they have an easy case to make to reject it. 

I saw some cases where the exact same people reapplied and were given a new license, but it typically it followed a year or two out of the business.

As far as having someone else apply for the license, that was the whole crux of the story today -- if it is a different "applicant," the ATF by law must approve the license. No discretion, they say. Even if they suspect it is a strawman situation, they have to prove it legally with evidence to deny the application. This basically means showing that the former person who lost their license is still in control and running the show behind the scenes (not just working at the shop in some other capacity, etc). Given the laws, this is extremely difficult and time consuming because the ATF has no authority (unless a case goes to court) to probe deeply into an applicant's financial structure.


Hey - thanks for all the great questions. We definitely appreciate you taking the time to read the work and weigh in with your comments.


In This Chat
David S. Fallis
David S. Fallis is an investigative reporter for The Washington Post.
James V. Grimaldi and Sari Horwitz
James V. Grimaldi and Sari Horwitz are investigative reporters for The Washington Post.
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