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Gun dealers under more scrutiny


WASHINGTON -- In a major step to curb the virtually unchecked growth of firearms dealers in the United States, the Clinton administration has begun requiring new applicants and those renewing their licenses to submit photographs and fingerprints and is asking them whether they are complying with local and state laws.

Currently, only machine gun dealers -- a tiny fraction of the 266,000 licensed firearms dealers -- are required to produce photo IDs and fingerprints.

The federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms, which regulates the gun industry, began mailing out the new four-page application form and a three-page questionnaire last week to new applicants and those wanting to renew their licenses. The two documents supplant the previous two-page application form that asked few questions about the planned business and required virtually no proof that the applicant was who he said he was.

The federal government cannot withhold licenses to applicants who violate state and local laws, most of which deal with zoning and license requirements. But last year, the ATF began providing local and state agencies with the names of new firearms licensees. The new forms -- and the prospect of five years' imprisonment for lying on the application -- will help the agency share more precise information with local officials, the ATF said.

Richard Gardiner, the National Rifle Association's counsel, said the new rules are illegal because they go far beyond the scope of the 1968 Gun Control Act, which broadly defined license requirements. He accused the ATF of "acting almost like a bunch of criminals. Please quote me on that."

But Bill Bridgewater, executive director of the National Alliance of Stocking Gun Dealers, which represents storefront dealers, welcomed the new regulations because they would help weed out gun hobbyists, black-market dealers and the "kitchen-table" dealers who work out of their homes. "There's not one thing (in the new application) I find offensive or not necessary, particularly the positive identification requirements," he said.

Gun-control advocates also praised the new license application. "It's great," said Josh Sugarmann, executive director of the Violence Policy Center, which has criticized the licensing standards.

Critics have long contended that license application standards have been too lax. In 1990, the ATF licensed two dogs as firearms dealers. The dogs had acted as proxies for reporters to demonstrate that virtually anyone (or anything) can get a license.

Applicants also will be paying higher fees for the new licenses: Under the newly enacted Brady law, the three-year license fee was increased from $30 to $200. Bridgewater said the new identification requirements and detailed answers on whether the applicant is complying with existing laws will have a far greater impact in reducing the number of licensees than the higher fee.

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