Why the forbearance for gun sellers? The gun lobby and its supporters in Congress don't like regulation of the gun industry.
Senior officials at the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives regularly overrule their own inspectors, allowing gun dealers who fail inspections to keep their licenses even after they were previously warned to follow the rules, according to interviews with more than half a dozen current and former law enforcement officials and a review of more than 100 inspection reports.
One store was cited for failing to conduct background checks before selling a gun. Another store owner told investigators he actively tried to circumvent gun laws. One threatened an A.T.F. officer, and another sold a gun to a customer who identified as a felon. All were previously cited by the A.T.F. In each instance, supervisors downgraded recommendations that the stores’ licenses be revoked and instead let them stay open.
Of about 11,000 inspections of licensed firearm dealers in the year starting in October 2016, more than half were cited for violations. Less than 1 percent of all inspections resulted in the loss of a license.
Lawmakers set a stringent requirement decades ago for gun inspectors: They must prove that store owners not only violated the law but intended to do so. The bureau has sidestepped the potential legal appeals and political fallout of revoking licenses by trying to work with gun dealers rather than close their stores.
The approach is widely seen by the A.T.F. as the best option to regulate the gun industry without fostering an adversarial relationship, but some in the bureau consider it a compromise that is at best nuanced and at worst unsafe.