The federal law enforcement agency that has acknowledged losing track of hundreds of weapons in sting operations is trying to force legal gun dealers to do what it failed to accomplish: quickly report guns that get lost in transit.
The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, which endured significant ridicule from the Fast and Furious gun-walking scandal, on Tuesday revived a decade-old and previously rejected regulation that would require gun dealers to report within two days any weapons that get lost in shipping.
A similar proposal was introduced by the Clinton Justice Department in 2000 but was shot down four years later by the Bush administration. Reviving the 14-year-old rule drew immediate outcries from the firearms industry, which argued that compliance would put them at the mercy of shippers such as FedEx, UPS and the U.S. Postal Service.
“How are we supposed to have insight on UPS’ truckers or routes?” said Terry Haber, a sales representative at Fletcher Arms in Waukesha, Wisconsin. “Usually the first person to know if a shipment has gone missing is the retailer receiving the guns. If they don’t get their merchandise, you better believe we’ll all be looking for it.”
Dealers, manufactures and importers currently work with ATF agents on a voluntary basis once they realize a shipment is missing because no one wants to bear the responsibility of a stolen firearm used in a crime.
“We don’t want to lose a gun, or have one stolen, and we do everything in our power to make sure that doesn’t happen,” Mr. Haber said. “This seems like a solution to a problem that doesn’t exist, and places an unnecessary burden on us.”
Indeed, only about 1,500 guns, on average, go missing and unreported in transit each year, according to ATF’s own records. As many as 21 million firearms may have been sold last year alone, according to industry standards.
In comparison, ATF has acknowledged losing track of at least 1,400 guns during the bungled Fast and Furious sting operation, in which agents knowingly let semi-automatic weapons cross the border into Mexico’s violent drug wars. Many of those guns have since shown up at crime scenes on both sides of the border, including in the slaying of one U.S. Border Patrol agent.
Separately, the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel reported this year that ATF agents had their own guns lost or stolen at least 45 times from 2009 to 2013.
ATF said in its rule proposal that it is trying to cut down on the theft of guns during transit, a crime that has grown by 20 percent in recent years.
“The omissions in the regulations regarding reporting the theft or loss of a firearm in transit adversely affect ATF’s local law enforcement’s investigative and tracing capabilities,” the proposed rule said.
Still, the agency’s justification for a new regulation is weak and the ATF shouldn’t be given a free pass to create new rules that will burden the gun industry, without explaining how they reached their conclusion that the new regulation will reduce gun crimes, said Matthew Bergstrom, the managing lawyer at Arsenal Attorneys, a Virginia-based law firm that concentrates on the needs of gun owners.
“We’re seeing a pattern of ATF proposals without them providing any basis for their claims,” said Mr. Bergstrom. “There isn’t a regulation that the Obama administration doesn’t like — they don’t see the costs or the regulatory burden associated with them. But when do these regulations become a slow boa-constrictor on the economy?”
ATF seems to be accomplishing in its rule-making what the Obama administration failed to do legislatively with gun control, and what is done in the shadows should worry the American public, he said.
Out of the millions of guns shipped by federal firearms licensees each year, the number lost in transit is minimal, said Larry Keane, a senior vice president for the National Shooting Sports Foundation, the trade association for the firearms industry.
What this proposed rule will do is add burden and cost on the dealers who ship the guns, leading to fewer jobs and higher prices on the consumers who want to purchase the firearms, he said.
“This rule adds a tremendous cost for industry on the shipping [federal firearm license] to put in place mechanisms to track every single shipment to make sure it arrives complete and unharmed,” Mr. Keane said. “The ATF has never told us this was a major problem — if it was then why did it take them 14 years to propagate the rule? This burden shouldn’t be on the shipping FFL — it will only add to their costs.”
If one compares the number of guns stolen to the number sold annually, the issue seems almost moot, Mr. Keane said.
Last year, the FBI conducted more than 21 million background checks — the most ever — which are often used as a signal to the industry on how many guns are sold. If only 1,500 were stolen during transit — out of the millions sold — then the industry is already doing a good job self-reporting and voluntarily working with ATF agents, Mr. Keane argued.
Most commonly, when guns are stolen during shipment, it is done by the employees of third-party vendors, not sophisticated gun traffickers or cartels, he said.
Federal regulations already require firearm dealers to report guns lost in their inventories within 48 hours after discovery, but there’s no reporting regulations on guns lost in transit. The new rule takes aim at correcting that omission, requiring shippers to report to local law-enforcement within two days after losing a shipment.
ATF spokeswoman Dannette Seward said in all likelihood the 1,500 lost gun figure is on the low end of the spectrum as it represents only guns used in crimes that were recovered and traced by local authorities — the total number of guns lost and stolen in transit but not reported is likely much higher, she said in an email statement.
The proposed rule is not designed to place more regulatory burden dealers, but rather to clarify that shippers are the responsible party when a firearm is lost in transit, Ms. Seward said.
“The proposed regulation makes clear who must report, but does not add any additional reporting requirements,” Ms. Seward said. “The proposed regulation does not require universal tracking by shippers.
“The requirement to report kicks in only when the shipper becomes aware that the receiver did not receive the firearm, which could occur in a number of ways, including when the receiver notifies the shipper that the firearm never arrived, the common carrier advises its clients of a theft or loss, or through other means,” she added.
The public has 30 days to comment on the rule.