A couple weeks ago I read a news article by several journalists from The Trace and USA today. It was a discussion of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) oversight of gun dealers. While this report had many facts, it put few of them in context. I thought the article misrepresented most gun dealers and the ATF. While I think there are many things we can do to keep guns out of the hands of bad people, changing the rules for people who have federal firearm licenses is not high on my list.
Let’s start with what it takes to get a federal firearm license to sell guns in the US? Not very much. Mostly it comes down to being at least 21, not being a felon, and paying a fee. This is one reason why the number of people that hold these licenses is so big. As of January 1, 2021 there were 78,828 businesses and individuals who had federal firearm licenses. That’s a big number but over 2,000 of these licenses are held by Walmart. Many other large stores such as Dicks Sporting Goods, Big 5, and Sportsman Warehouse have hundreds of these licenses.
The nationwide number is large, so let’s look at Cache Valley. I found nearly 70 of these licenses can be found in Utah’s portion of Cache Valley and a half dozen on Idaho’s side. This reflects the locations of businesses in the Valley as many of the larger sporting good stores and pawn shops are in the southern part of the valley. There may be a good argument about the need for pawn shops to sell guns, but in the West, guns are often the only collateral a young person has. Most of the rest of the licenses in the valley seem to be related to gunsmiths and collectors.
In Utah and Idaho, you don’t have to have a license to privately sell a gun. The primary rules are the person buying the gun has to be over 18, isn’t a known felon, and can’t have told the seller they won’t pass a background check or are about to commit a crime. There are different requirements from state to state, so please read the appropriate state laws before selling a gun. One risk of a private sale is if you were the original purchaser from a store, you will remain on record for owning this weapon. This is why you should document the sale of any gun. Having a written receipt will help protect you if the gun is used in a future criminal act.
What is required when you purchase a gun from an entity with a federal firearm license? Mostly it is about implementing federal laws related to background checks and keeping records of the guns they possess and sell. This process keeps the government from knowing who owns guns. The government can, however, use this system to track ownership after a gun has been used in a crime.
The primary takeaway I got from the news article on gun sales and federal firearm licenses was people were not following the rules and there was lax federal oversight. This point was made by identifying several gun shops that illegally sold hundreds of guns, often to people that could not legally possess them. In some situations, guns were knowingly sold to criminals and ended up killing law enforcement officers. Many of these stores made these sales after receiving several warnings from the ATF, even though these previous violations were sufficient to revoke the gun seller’s license.
In most cases, however, the primary violation related to federal firearm licenses is misplaced or not perfectly accurate paperwork. I could never have a license to sell firearms as I have trouble keeping the proof of insurance in my car up to date. This news article found only nine Utah gun dealers received warnings from the ATF, none of which warranted revoking their license. In Idaho this happened 12 times. Again, none of these licenses should have been revoked.
Violations where guns are sold to criminals are different than those for poor paperwork. I’m all for throwing the book at people who knowingly sell guns to criminals but not a gunsmith with poor book-keeping skills. Nearly all gun sellers want to keep guns out of criminal’s hands; this often gets lost in these discussions. It is important to recognize some people don’t follow the rules when selling guns but I don’t think the best solution is more paperwork. Instead, it is about finding more creative way to keep any of the 390 million guns in the United States out of the hands of people with criminal intent.