Tue, Jul 17, 2007 - Page 9 News List

US focus turns to policing gun shops

A small number of stores and pawn shops account for a large number of weapons used in crime in the US. The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives is trying to close some of them down

By David Caruso  /  AP , NEW YORK

When criminals need guns, they have plenty of options in a country with nearly 100,000 licensed gun stores. But drug dealers and other crooks do not shop just anywhere. They have their favorites.

In Compton, California, gangsters preferred Boulevard Sales & Service, a shop police said was so felon-friendly, some salesmen offered tips on how to buy a gun despite a criminal record.

In Philadelphia, shady gun buyers sent girlfriends to a suburban pawn shop, Lou's Loan, where the staff would not raise a fuss if a young woman came by a few times a month to purchase cheap handguns.

And on the outskirts of New Orleans, killers-to-be armed themselves at Elliot's Gun Shop. Over the past five years, the store was the source of 2,300 weapons later linked to crime, including an astonishing 125 homicides, according to the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF).

In fact, government figures show that an extremely small number of gun shops account for a spectacularly large number of weapons used in crimes.

Stores like these have long occupied protected territory. The products they sell are legal. The US Congress has sheltered them from lawsuits and limited the power of regulators. It can take years for the ATF to revoke a dealer's license.

But there are signs that scrutiny is on the rise.

Over the past three years, ATF agents have cracked down on some of the stores most notorious for selling large numbers of weapons used in street crime. In 2005 and last year, some 220 firearms dealers had their licenses revoked -- 20 more than in the previous eight years combined.

More than two dozen stores have also been hit with lawsuits, most notably by the city of New York, where Mayor Michael Bloomberg has made gun control a talking point of what could be a nascent presidential campaign.

The pickup in enforcement action has delighted gun-control groups -- and dismayed Second Amendment advocates, who say law-abiding merchants are being driven out of business.

"I've never run into a situation where a dealer has intentionally violated the law," said Richard Gardiner, a Virginia lawyer who represents gun dealers.

If guns are being bought at these stores by criminals, "it is because they are being exploited by people who know how to beat the system," he said.

Gun-control advocates, though encouraged by an increase in scrutiny, believe the government is still doing too little. The number of shops disciplined by the government, they say, represents just a fraction of those that aren't playing by the rules.

"There are bad apples out there," said Brady Center attorney Daniel Vice. "ATF knows who they are. The manufacturers know who they are. But most of them are still operating."

Much of what the government knows about where criminals get guns comes from the vast database the ATF uses to trace weapons found at crime scenes or confiscated by police.

The data shows that a majority of guns used by criminals are not stolen or smuggled into the country.

They are bought at federally licensed gun stores, often by "straw purchasers," people acting on behalf of others who cannot buy a weapon legally because of a criminal record.

The database also shows that most gun shops rarely, if ever, sell a weapon later linked to a crime. But a few shops account for a remarkably large number of these guns.

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