Both sides of the gun control debate agree that when someone uses a gun to commit a crime, it probably came from an illegal source: a straw purchase, an illegal transfer or, less commonly, outright theft.
Advocates differ on who to blame and what to do — a point highlighted by federal legislation in proposed by a Wisconsin congresswoman that could increase scrutiny of gun dealers and a topic that stirs discourse in Western Pennsylvania.
The Gun Dealer Accountability Act would grant the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives temporary authority to increase monitoring of gun dealers who have transferred a gun illegally or sold 10 guns that were used in crimes in the past two years. Lawmakers who want stronger gun control laws support the bill, but it is drawing criticism from those who say it punishes the wrong people.
“There is undue attention being focused on gun dealers for perpetrating a crime and not enough on the criminals for doing it,” said Kim Stolfer, president of Firearms Owners Against Crime, a Pennsylvania-based political action committee.
Agents with the ATF inspect records of gun dealers each year, said Stolfer, of South Fayette. If the bill becomes law, the ATF would be able to conduct more frequent inspections at the stores under review and request a physical inventory of the dealer’s firearms.
The review period would be temporary, but the bill does not specify a time period.
The legislation was introduced Wednesday, about two weeks after a jury found a West Milwaukee gun dealer liable for $5 million in damages because the store sold a gun used to shoot two police officers. The dealer, who plans to appeal, sold the gun to a straw purchaser — someone who buys a gun on behalf of someone who can’t legally purchase one.
The man, 18, who obtained the gun from the straw purchaser wounded the officers when they stopped him in 2009.
According to The Brady Campaign, a Washington-based gun control advocacy group, about 90 percent of guns used in crimes are sold by a small number of “bad apple” dealers willing to engage in illegal straw purchase or resale deals. About 80 percent of dealers nationwide, the group said, have not had a “crime gun” traced to their business.
Even if they did, a legitimate dealer can’t be held responsible if a gun is stolen or used in a crime, Stolfer said. The person who did the shooting should be the one on trial.
“What this is doing is this is opening up an unnecessary window into gun dealers when they already have the authority to go after people who traffic in illegal firearms,” Stolfer said about the proposal.
State Sen. Daylin Leach, D-Montgomery County, welcomed the bill and said more scrutiny is needed.
He has led several efforts in Pennsylvania to reduce gun violence. If 10 crime guns have been traced to a single dealer within two years, that’s “more than bad luck,” he said.
“These are people who at the very least should be looked into further,” Leach said. “Straw purchasers are responsible for much of the slaughter we see on our streets.”
Many dealers’ doors “are already wide open” to law enforcement, said Nathan Casey, co-owner of Bullseye Firearms Gun Vault in New Alexandria. He and gun dealers communicate regularly with the ATF and work together to crack down on straw purchasers.
Casey said his staff jots down the names and addresses of shoppers they’ve declined to sell a gun, he said. If someone comes in with an address near a rejected shopper and they inquire about the same firearm, the staff would be suspicious.
“There’s a lot that dealers already do to get rid of those problems,” Casey said.
If a dealer is transferring firearms illegally, that is definitely an issue that would require more attention from law enforcement.
“That shouldn’t happen,” he said.
But agents hopefully wouldn’t be able to track 10 or more guns used in crimes to a responsible dealer.
“It seems like they’re just trying to do some targeting,” Casey said about the proposed law. “And they’ve already done so much.”
Elizabeth Behrman is a Trib Total Media staff writer. Reach her at 412-320-7886 or [email protected].