Capital Gazette wins special Pulitzer Prize citation for coverage of newsroom shooting that killed five

Protecting scofflaw gun dealers would endanger Americans


WASHINGTON -Bull's Eye Shooter Supply - the Tacoma, Wash., gun store that armed the Washington, D.C.-area snipers - is the kind of bad-apple gun dealer that should be sanctioned, not protected, by the law.

When John Allen Muhammad and Lee Boyd Malvo - both prohibited gun buyers under federal law - needed a sniper rifle to carry out their deadly rampage, they found the perfect store in Bull's Eye, a dealer unable to account for hundreds of missing guns during repeated government audits.

Mr. Malvo said he was able to walk out of Bull's Eye with a $1,600 3-foot-long assault rifle under his coat. After 16 innocent victims were killed or wounded with the gun, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) traced it back to Bull's Eye.

The shop had not reported the gun as missing or stolen because, incredibly, it did not know the gun was gone. Eight of the victims sued Bull's Eye for negligence. ATF also instituted an administrative proceeding to revoke Bull's Eye's federal gun license for its serious record- keeping violations.

Congress now appears poised to pass legislation to immunize reckless dealers such as Bull's Eye from lawsuits brought by innocent victims for their negligence and to ban enforcement proceedings by ATF to prevent future violations.

As former directors of ATF under six presidents, we are appalled that members of Congress would support special-interest legislation to protect dangerous gun dealers rather than laws that would protect the American people.

When we headed ATF, our job was to crack down on gun dealers who diverted guns into crim inals" hands, and we needed every legal tool at our disposal to do so, including the ability to revoke the licenses of dealers who violate the law. If gun industry immunity is adopted, however, one of ATF's critical law enforcement tools will be eliminated.

The provision that would neuter ATF's enforcement powers is a new addition to the gun immunity bill that failed in the last Congress. The legislation would prohibit all "administrative proceeding[s]' brought by governmental entities such as ATF that seek "fines, penalties or other relief."

ATF would not be able to bring enforcement proceedings to revoke the licenses of scofflaw dealers and would be forced to immediately suspend any proceedings under way. There are no exceptions to the bill that would save ATF's powers in such cases, despite assurances to the contrary by the bill's Republican sponsors, Sen. Larry E. Craig of Idaho and Rep. Cliff Stearns of Florida.

We know from experience how important it is that ATF be able to enforce our nation's gun laws to prevent firearms from being obtained by terrorists, felons and the gun traffickers who supply them. To protect all Americans, Congress should be strengthening our laws and increasing ATF's resources, not tying its hands. Crippling law enforcement in the post-9/11 age is nothing short of madness.

Steve Higgins was director of the ATF from 1982 to 1993. Rex Davis was its director from 1970 to 1978.

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