Investigation: ATF rarely issues harsh gun dealer penalties in Louisiana
Gun shops nationwide face government inspections to ensure they're complying with federal rules regarding paperwork, background checks and prohibited purchasers, but rarely face severe sanctions.
That's according to a sweeping examination of Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives records by USA TODAY and The Trace. It found that policing of the shops has been conciliatory, with the ATF often bending over backward to go easy on wayward dealers coast to coast, and sometimes allowing guns to flow into the hands of criminals.
Gun industry lobbyists have for decades fought against tougher oversight by casting gun dealers as among the most heavily regulated businesses in the U.S. But the review found that dealers are largely immune from serious punishment and enjoy layers of protection unavailable to most other industries.
Reporters spent more than a year analyzing documents from nearly 2,000 gun dealer inspections that uncovered violations from 2015 to 2017. The reports showed that, while most errors were inadvertent, some dealers outright flouted the rules — selling weapons to convicted felons and domestic abusers, lying to investigators and fudging records to mask their unlawful conduct.
In many cases when the ATF caught dealers breaking the law, the agency issued warnings, sometimes repeatedly, and allowed the stores to operate for months or years. Others are still selling guns to this day.
In Louisiana, 71 gun dealers in 73 inspections received a warning letter or worse from the ATF, the investigation found.
USA TODAY and The Trace found 82 cases across the country where the ATF initially recommended pulling a gun dealer's license, but later downgraded that recommendation. In Louisiana, no downgrades were found.
Receiving the most citations in a single inspection — 15 — was Jessies of Oak Grove.
Among the most common citations in the state: Firearms licensees failed to provide information as required on paperwork. Reporters reviewed 359 citations in Louisiana. Some citations were redacted by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives.
Nearly half of all stores across the U.S with violations over the two years examined transferred guns without running a background check correctly, waiting for the check to be completed or properly recording the results. More than 200 dealers were cited for selling guns to people who indicated on background check paperwork that they were prohibited from owning them. Dozens made false statements in official records, a violation that includes facilitating illegal straw purchases. Straw purchases are the illegal practice of allowing a stand-in to buy a firearm for another person — often one prohibited from purchasing the firearm.
A Florida gun dealer got in trouble for giving a Taurus handgun to a convicted felon in the store's parking lot and an Arkansas pawn shop was cited for selling a firearm to a customer even though he had failed the background check because of an active restraining order. In Ohio, one gun store transferred 18 firearms without checking ID; another was missing sales records on more than 600 firearms.
A Pennsylvania gun retailer racked up 45 violations and received eight warnings from the ATF. But the store was allowed to remain in business, and went on to sell a shotgun to a man who used it to kill four family members, including his 7-year-old half-brother.
A single violation is enough to shutter a gun shop if ATF officials can prove that the store willfully broke federal regulations. In more than 92% of the cases included in the documents analyzed by USA TODAY and The Trace, the ATF gave violators the lightest penalty available: a boilerplate warning letter reminding them that their compliance is critical to "reduce violent crime and protect the public." The agency revoked a gun dealer's license in less than 3% of cases.
The ATF is about to face intense scrutiny, with Congress set to consider President Joe Biden's pick for the agency's first permanent director in six years and new executive orders to direct the agency to produce reports on firearm trafficking. Confirmation hearings will unfold against a backdrop of public anguish over recent mass shootings and a renewed determination from the White House to clamp down on easy access to guns.
The USA TODAY Network is publishing separate versions of this article with localized statistics on its news sites across the country.
Contributing: Dan Keemahill and Mike Stucka, USA TODAY.
Nick Penzenstadler is a reporter on the USA TODAY investigations team, focusing primarily on firearms and consumer financial protection. Contact him at email@example.com or @npenzenstadler, or on Signal at (720) 507-5273. Brian Freskos is staff writer with The Trace, a nonprofit investigative journalism outlet focused on firearms. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.