The number of federally licensed gun dealers has plummeted 35 percent during the Clinton administration, as the government has stepped up inspections and increased fees, congressional investigators reported Wednesday.
Separately, the General Accounting Office concluded that the use of force by Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms agents has been well in line with those of other federal law enforcement agencies.
The two audits, to be the focus of a House subcommittee hearing today, were prompted by the ATF’s deadly botched raid at Waco, Texas, in 1993, which roused widespread allegations of abuses by the agency.
The GAO, the investigative arm of Congress, found that ATF agents made nearly 47,000 arrests from 1990 through 1995, and had only 39 shooting incidents and 25 allegations of excessive force - an average of fewer than 10 a year.
Eighteen of the excessive force allegations were determined by ATF to be unsubstantiated, and all the shootings were ruled justified. The Waco incident was not included in the study.
In comparison, the FBI had 89 shooting incidents over the same period during some 119,000 arrests.
“ATF is well in line with all the other federal law enforcement agencies, particularly in light of the particular kind of folks they tend to deal with, who tend to be the more violent,” said Rep. Jim Lightfoot, R-Iowa, chairman of the House Appropriations subcommittee that oversees ATF. He requested the audits.
However, Lightfoot said the sudden decline in licensed gun dealers raised questions about whether the agency was dealing with too heavy a hand when it came to legal sellers.
“The Clinton administration used the ATF to push its firearms agenda, basically mandating them to reduce the number of firearms dealers by any legal means that were necessary that they could find,” he said.
ATF director John W. Magaw was out of town Wednesday and not available for comment, his office said.
But the GAO said it “found no evidence that ATF had a policy, or sought to reduce the number of licensed dealers by some targeted number.” Rather it said the reduction was the net effect of dramatically increased inspections, new regulations and higher fees.
The GAO reported that the number of federally licensed firearms dealers declined from a record high of 260,703 in April 1993 to 168,395 last Sept. 30, the lowest total since before President Reagan took office.
Declines were recorded in every state, ranging from 23 percent in Montana to 45 percent in Hawaii, the report said.
The decline is good for gun stores such as Gary’s Gun Shop in Sioux Falls, S.D., according to store manager Steve Aatjes.
“It means there are less basement bandits or people selling guns out of their car out on the street, and more (people) having to buy them from legitimate businesses such as ourselves,” Aatjes said.
But Attorney James Jeffries, a former Justice Department prosecutor who now represents guns dealers in cases against the ATF, said the net effect of the Clinton administration’s changes has been to make “reinspection, relicensing much more onerous.”
Much of the decline, the GAO said, came in new license applications or renewals that were either rejected or withdrawn and dealers who surrendered their licenses to settle disputes with ATF. Only a small number of licenses were revoked outright.
The audit cited a variety of reasons for the decline, most notably a strong push by the Clinton administration to step up its inspections of gun dealers and elicit more information on their licenses.
It said one impetus was an August 1993 memo from President Clinton directing the Treasury Department “to take whatever steps are necessary” to ensure strict compliance with the gun dealer licensing rules and root out those not engaged in legitimate firearms business.
The study found that the percentage of licensed gun dealers inspected by ATF had more than doubled, from 4.4 percent in 1991 to 9.3 percent in 1995. In the last two years, those inspections resulted in the surrender of more than 7,500 licenses, the report said.
Other factors in the decline, the GAO said, included two changes implemented by Congress:
A 1993 law that raised the fees for new three-year licenses from $10 to $200 and for renewed three-year licenses from $10 to $90.
A 1994 provision that required federal dealers to certify they will comply with state and local regulations.
MEMO: Cut in Spokane Edition