Congress has been looking to increase inspections on some types of private gun purchases, but federally licensed firearms dealers — whose sales already are subject to background checks — may need more scrutiny themselves, according to a Justice Department audit.
More than 170,000 firearms have been lost or stolen from the inventories of federally licensed dealers since 2004, and about 6 in 10 dealers had gone at least five years without a compliance inspection from 2007 to 2012.
The report from Justice's inspector general says the department doesn't have enough investigators and has too many other competing priorities to audit dealers, whose numbers increased by 16 percent — 106,214 to 123,587 — from 2004 to 2011.
The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives increased its number of investigators by 22 percent in that time frame, from 510 to 624, but even that wasn't enough to keep up.
"Despite this increase, ATF field divisions told ATF headquarters in 2012 that they were still understaffed by 45 percent and that they needed 504 more investigators to conduct all inspections due that year," the investigators said.
The ATF has set a goal of performing compliance inspections at least every five years, and in some cases three years, to make sure dealers are obeying federal firearms laws, keeping transaction records and logging all the firearms they acquire and sell.
But in the past five years more than 58 percent of dealers — 73,204 out of 125,481 — had not been inspected, and from 2004 to 2011, dealers had 174,679 firearms stolen or lost from their inventories, though the report did not specify the dispositions of those weapons or how many were subsequently used in crimes.
The findings come as President Obama and Congress search for consensus on guns after December's shooting rampage at Sandy Hook Elementary School claimed the lives of 20 children and six faculty members.
Senators earlier this month rejected a plan to expand background checks on gun purchases to include private sales over the Internet or at gun shows.
Lawmakers have been reluctant to push dealers too far. Language attached to federal appropriations measures in recent years prevents ATF from requiring licensed dealers to conduct yearly inventories, among other restrictions. Dealers still must report lost or stolen guns.
Rep. Charles B. Rangel, New York Democrat, recently introduced a bill that would push the federal government to do more to oversee licensed dealers.
"We need to empower the ATF so they can identify and prosecute unlawful gun dealers and traffickers that fuel the epidemic of gun violence in this country," Mr. Rangel said.
Mr. Obama has also pressed the Senate to approve Acting Director B. Todd Jones as permanent director of the agency. The chamber has not signed off on a permanent head for ATF since the position became Senate confirmable in 2006.
The auditors do credit ATF with making changes and improvements to its inspection program after a July 2004 review. Such changes include reducing the number of inspections done by phone and implementing an initiative to prioritize inspections of "high risk" dealers.
But ATF says there's only so much it can do with limited resources.
"Shifting existing resources to meet cyclical inspection goals is not a viable option," Mr. Jones wrote in his response to the audit.
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