Why Gun Dealers Have Dwindled ; Gun-Control Activists Tie the Trend to a Drop in Crime. NRA Disagrees

By Alexandra Marks writer of The Christian Science Monitor | The Christian Science Monitor, March 14, 2006 | Go to article overview

Why Gun Dealers Have Dwindled ; Gun-Control Activists Tie the Trend to a Drop in Crime. NRA Disagrees


Alexandra Marks writer of The Christian Science Monitor, The Christian Science Monitor


The United States has more gas stations than gun dealers. "News flash?" you might think. But a decade ago, businesses licensed to sell firearms outnumbered gas stations 245,000 to 210,000. Since then, the number of licensed firearms dealers has declined almost 80 percent, according to a recent study of federal data.

The reason: changes in regulations in the 1990s that, among other things, required federally licensed gun dealers to comply with zoning laws and report certain information to local police.

Gun-control advocates contend that this dramatic reduction is a victory for "sensible" gun-control policy that has made it harder for criminals to get guns. They believe the reduced number of dealers makes it easier for the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (known commonly as ATF) to police the "bad apple" dealers who divert guns onto the illegal market. ATF studies have shown that a disproportionately large number of those bad apple dealers were small businesses. And while gun-control advocates acknowledge there's no empirical evidence, they believe the reduction was one element that added to the dramatic decline in crime during the past decade.

"This is a major policy success of the Clinton administration, because the gun distribution system has been out of control for a long time," says Dennis Henigan, director of the Brady Center, a gun- control advocacy group in Washington.

The National Rifle Association has a very different response: "So what?" says Andrew Arulanandam, a spokesman for the NRA in Fairfax, Va. He contends the changes only drove out individuals who may have gotten a license so they could buy guns at wholesale prices for their personal use.

His explanation for crime being at an all-time low is very different, but also anecdotal: During the past decade NRA membership has almost doubled, the number of firearms sold has increased, and a majority of states now have laws allowing individuals to carry concealed weapons.

"It's a stretch to make the claim that this reduction in dealers had any impact on the reduction in crime," Mr. Arulanandam says.

These two dramatically different takes on what was clearly an effective social policy - like it or not, it did decrease the number of gun dealers - illustrate the hot- button nature of the gun- control debate. They also show widely different perceptions of the nation's current gun laws: While one side says the regulations are inadequate, the other says they're already too onerous.

But there are a few things that both sides in the debate can agree on, such as the reasons for the decline in gun dealers. During the Clinton administration, three major changes took place: ATF tightened up regulations, the Brady Handgun Violence Protection Act passed in 1993, and the next year the 1994 crime bill passed, which also tightened gun regulations. As a result, the cost of a federal firearms license jumped from $30 for three years to $200 for the same duration. In addition, dealers were required to be photographed and fingerprinted, and they had to provide that information to the local police. They also had to comply with local zoning laws and prove they were engaged in "the business" of selling firearms.

"If there are fewer licensees to monitor, then the workload may be more manageable, but the question still remains: Does the ATF have the power and resources to find the bad apples and then go after them? …

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