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
"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? …