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No Gun-Selling License? Not a Problem

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The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel published a MUST-READ article on June 5th about the appalling lack of effective regulations on gun sellers.

This brilliant article was written by the Sentinel's John Diedrich, one of the country's most professional and gifted journalists writing about the gun industry and violence in America.

Loopholes keep Shawano shop in business despite revocation and alleged straw buying

By John Diedrich of the Journal Sentinel

Shawano — From almost the time it opened in 1998, Shawano Gun and Loan has been in trouble with federal authorities.

After repeatedly warning the store about missing records and other violations, the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives took the unusual step of revoking its license in 2007.

Nearly three years later, the case is tied up in federal court in Green Bay where an appeal could grind on for years.

And the store continues to sell guns - thousands of them each year - with the ATF's blessing.

What's more, the owner told the ATF that he might transfer the operation to his nephew. That could keep the store operating and erase the violations and revocation - similar to the scenario that unfolded in 2006 at the West Milwaukee store that has sold every gun used to wound six Milwaukee police officers in the past 2 ½ years.

The case shows how laws enacted by Congress hobble the agency charged with policing gun stores and protect dealers who repeatedly break the law. The ATF doesn't crack down on dealers because there are so many loopholes in the law protecting them, agency veterans say.

"It is just very difficult to go after a gun dealer," said Gerald Nunziato, who retired in 1999 after 29 years in the ATF. "It is sad. Everyone thinks the government is handling it. They are handling it by ignoring it."

The case involving the Shawano store is notable because of what experts call blatant evidence of "straw buying" - where people with clean records purchase guns for felons and others who are forbidden from buying and owning them.

Straw buying is a crime - for the buyer and the clerk who knowingly makes the sale. It is a federal felony but remains a misdemeanor in Wisconsin after the Legislature failed to pass a law making it a felony this year.

Shawano Gun and Loan sold guns to relatives of people who had just failed background checks at the store, ATF records show.

In at least five cases, family members - who live with the prohibited person - bought the gun shortly after the rejection, sometimes the same day. In three other cases, the buyer admitted on forms they were buying the gun for someone else. They were sold the gun anyway.

No one has been charged with straw buying or selling in the case...

Congress has limited ATF's options when it comes to punishing law-breaking stores. Besides revocation, the agency can only give warnings. ATF cannot suspend or fine a dealer, except under rare circumstances.

Following the 2004 inspection, the ATF cracked down on Backes as hard as Congress allows: It sent a letter and held a meeting with him. He promised to do better.

"I would like apologize (sic) for my misconduct," Backes wrote in a letter to the ATF. "I do understand the severity of the violations."

In 2007, ATF investigators returned and again found missing paperwork for guns sold. They also uncovered evidence Backes and his staff were selling guns to straw buyers, records show.

The store sold or returned on pawn nearly 3,000 guns over the 14 months before the inspection. That would rank it among the larger gun dealers nationwide, according to gun experts and the ATF.

The store reported that people buying guns or trying to get back pawned guns failed background checks 48 times, records show.

In nine of those cases, there was evidence of straw buying, according to ATF investigators, who said they spot-checked just a sampling of Backes' records.

In several of the cases, the suspected straw buyer bought the gun on the same day a relative was rejected, records show. That is a strong indicator of straw buying, ATF officials testified in a hearing as part of the revocation process...

Backes, 50, repeatedly told ATF investigators during the 2007 inspection that he planned to transfer the store to his nephew, Scott Backes, 38, who manages the operation, according to records.

If Timothy Backes relinquishes his license and Scott Backes pulls a fresh one, that could halt the revocation process and erase the earlier violations.

That would be similar to the case in 2006, when ATF investigators recommended revoking the license of Badger Outdoors in West Milwaukee...

Gun stores are handled differently than other federal license, largely because of the 1986 Firearm Owners' Protection Act, experts said.

Strongly supported by the National Rifle Association and other gun rights groups, the legislation laid out special appeal rights and rules for gun dealers.

ATF investigators can inspect a dealer only once a year without a federal court order. But the agency doesn't come close to inspecting all 115,000 dealers annually.

The agency moved to revoke 64 licenses in fiscal year 2009 stemming from more than 11,000 inspections - the most recent figures available.

Revoking a license can take years because of a law that allows a so-called "de novo review" by a federal judge - a fresh look at the case.

ATF typically allows stores to continue selling guns during the appeal process. Indeed, the law and court rulings have found that a dealer can, on a one-time basis, move his entire inventory into his "private collection" and sell the firearms at gun shows without background checks.


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