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News Opinion Editorial

Maryland's missing guns

Maryland ranks near the top of the nation in the number of firearms its federally licensed gun dealers report as lost or stolen, according to the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, a distinction far out of proportion to the state's size or rate of firearm ownership. The question is how many were actually lost and how many were "lost" by dishonest gun dealers looking to sell off the books to people who couldn't qualify to buy a weapon.

We do not mean to impugn gun dealers generally. Most are, no doubt, conscientious in following state and federal laws. But in Maryland we have painful experience with what can happen when a gun dealer goes bad and how difficult it can be to control the damage.

In 1997, ATF agents checked the inventory of Valley Gun, a well-known Parkville gun shop owned by Sanford Abrams, who served at one point as president of the Maryland Licensed Firearms Dealers Association and as a member of the National Rifle Association board. The store had 45 fewer guns than its records indicated it should. ATF agents came back two years later, discovered that more guns were missing and held a "warning conference" with Mr. Abrams.

In 2001, the ATF returned and determined that 133 weapons were missing. In 2003, the count was up to 472. It took almost another year for the ATF to issue a notice that it was revoking Mr. Abrams' license. In October, an administrative hearing officer concluded that Mr. Abrams' violations were "willful." It took almost another year and a half until Mr. Abrams finally lost his license. In dismissing a lawsuit in which Mr. Abrams attempted to block the revocation, U.S. District Judge William M. Nickerson said it was "undisputed fact" that because of Valley Gun's failures, "scores of firearms are unaccounted for, and therefore, untraceable."

What Judge Nickerson meant was that because Valley Gun had no record of what happened to those guns, there was no way to determine who the legal owner was of any that wound up in a crime. It wasn't an idle concern; the Americans for Gun Safety Foundation said Mr. Abrams ranked 37th out of 80,000 gun dealers nationwide for the sale of firearms from 1996-2000 that ended up in crimes. The Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence found that Valley Gun sold 14 firearms from 1993-1997 that were later used in homicides.

Thanks to a loophole in federal law, Mr. Abrams was allowed to sell off his inventory after his license was revoked. In 2008, then-Baltimore Mayor Sheila Dixon testified before Congress that 142 guns used in city crimes in the previous two years had been traced back to Valley Gun. That same year, Mr. Abrams was given a five-year suspended sentence and a year of probation in a plea deal after he illegally sold an assault rifle to a man who then used it in a firefight with police.

The case of Valley Gun is, of course, an anomaly, but it illustrates two reasons why we should be worried about Maryland's high rate of missing or stolen guns. First, it can take years for the ATF to discover a crooked dealer and years more to do something about it. And second, off-the-books weapons can and do wind up at crime scenes.

Fortunately, some lesser-known provisions of Maryland's new gun control law should help address the problem. When the law goes into effect Oct. 1, the Maryland State Police will be required to inspect the inventory and records of every licensed firearms dealer in the state at least every two years and will be authorized to do so at any time. Given chronic underfunding, the ATF is now able to manage inspections at best once every five years. Giving the state police the power to fill in that gap holds out the promise that problem dealers will be identified and, if necessary, put out of business much more quickly.

The ATF report also covered the loss or theft of guns owned by individuals, and by that measure Maryland ranked much lower — 30th — though the agency acknowledges that its statistics are badly incomplete because lost or stolen guns are often not reported to police, and police don't always upload the information to the federal database that tracks such information. Maryland's law addresses those issues as well.

The disproportionate number of weapons going missing from Maryland's firearms dealers suggests we are at real risk of guns winding up in the hands of people who shouldn't have them. Along with other crucial features, like a licensing system that requires handgun purchasers to provide their fingerprints to the state police, Maryland's new gun control law should help prevent that from happening.

Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun
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