‘Enough’ Quigley, others in Congress tell ATF, demanding data on gun-dealer inspections

They cited an investigation published by the Sun-Times that found the agency routinely goes easy on lawbreaking gun dealers that sold ‘crime guns’ recovered in Chicago.

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U.S. Rep. Mike Quigley, D-Illinois.

U.S. Rep. Mike Quigley, D-Illinois, on lax enforcement of lawbreaking gun dealers: “Americans have had enough. It’s time for the ATF to step up.”

Mandel Ngan-Pool / Getty Images

U.S. Rep. Mike Quigley, D-Illinois, and other lawmakers are demanding that the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives turn over more detailed data from the past five years on inspections of gun dealers.

That’s in response to an investigation by The Trace and USA Today published by the Chicago Sun-Times last month that found the agency repeatedly went easy on gun dealers in the Chicago area that violated federal regulations.

“At a time when gun violence and crime are rising, it is unacceptable for bad actors to repeatedly avoid accountability,” Quigley and 26 other U.S. representatives, all Democrats, said in the letter to the ATF, which also said they “are concerned that ATF has failed to hold repeat offender gun dealers accountable.”

A front-page report that appeared in the Sun-Times last month detailing lax enforcement by the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives in the Chicago area.

A front-page report that appeared in the Sun-Times last month detailing lax enforcement by the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives in the Chicago area.

The letter comes as the country reels from the elementary school massacre in Uvalde, Texas, in which 19 children and two adults died and the racist attack in a Buffalo, New York, grocery store that killed 10 people.

The mass killings have prompted renewed demands for universal background checks for gun-buyers and other reforms. But the letter, written by Quigley, focuses on the ATF’s ability to shut down lawbreaking gun dealers that supply weapons to people legally barred from having them.

“It is imperative that the federal government explore every tool at our disposal to reduce gun violence,” the Northwest Side congressman said. “Lax enforcement of the gun laws already on our books has let some of the nation’s most notorious gun sellers off the hook, turning a blind eye to business practices that contribute to flooding the streets with guns that are then used in crimes.”

The Trace investigation looked at ATF inspection records for 13 gun dealers singled out by the city of Chicago as having sold a disproportionate number of “crime guns” that had been recovered in the city. It found that, over the past 10 years, the gun dealers routinely got off with little or no punishment even after they violated the agency’s own guidelines for enforcement. In several cases, dealers failed to conduct background checks, falsified ledgers and didn’t record gun sales. The ATF never gave any of them a penalty more severe than a warning.

That report followed a broader investigation by The Trace and USA Today last year that included a similar analysis of more than 2,000 gun dealer inspections across the United States between 2015 and 2017 and documented a pattern of severe proposed penalties being downgraded by ATF supervisors.

The members of Congress who signed the letter asked the ATF for information on how many federal firearms licensees were given warnings during the past five years, how many had licenses revoked and how many had penalties downgraded by supervisory agents. They also want to know how many inspections the agency plans to carry out this year and next.

Last June, following the initial investigation, President Joe Biden announced steps to ramp up penalties for lawbreaking gun shops that included a gun-trafficking strike force for five cities, including Chicago, and a “zero-tolerance” policy for dealers that willfully violate certain laws. The administration also called on Congress to increase ATF funding to toughen inspections.

President Joe Biden in April 2021, announcing stepped-up anti-violence efforts.

President Joe Biden in April 2021, announcing stepped-up anti-violence efforts.

Alex Wong / Getty Images

Soon after, House Democrats introduced the Keeping Gun Dealers Honest Act, which would eliminate a requirement that the ATF must prove that a gun retailer intentionally violated the law before revoking its license and take other steps to increase the ATF’s authority. The bill hasn’t made it out of committee.

“The gun industry does not take the agency seriously as an enforcer of those laws, and violent crime is on the rise around the country,” the letter authored by Quigley said.

Past analyses of ATF data suggest that 5% of gun dealers in the 1990s were responsible for as many as 90% of guns recovered from crimes. More recent data is unavailable because of a budget rider called the Tiahrt amendment that prohibits the ATF from releasing detailed gun-trace information. Quigley wants the Tiahrt amendment repealed.

“Americans have had enough,” Quigley said. “It’s time for the ATF to step up.”

Champe Barton reports for The Trace, a nonprofit news organization covering gun violence in America, and produced this story in partnership with USA Today.

Champe Barton reports for The Trace, a nonprofit news organization covering gun violence in America, and produced this story in partnership with USA Today.

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