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How ATF’s culture of leniency, lack of oversight allows ‘wayward’ gun shops to stay open

A new investigation by USA Today and The Trace finds that the ATF, the federal body policing the gun industry, is "frequently toothless and conciliatory," goes easy on "wayward dealers" and sometimes allows guns to "flow into the hands of criminals." Stephanie Sy speaks to USA Today's Nick Penzenstadler, one of the lead investigative reporters, about the report and the San Jose mass shooting.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    The shooting in San Jose that took nine lives is the latest in a spike of mass shootings.

    In fact, the U.S. is averaging more than 10 a week this year, according to the Gun Violence Archive. The Archive defines a mass shooting as one where four or more people are injured or killed. It's led many to ask once again about guns and what can be done.

    Stephanie Sy looks at the role of the federal government's chief watchdog — that is the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms — in a conversation she taped a short time ago.

  • Stephanie Sy:

    Judy, a new investigation by USA Today and The Trace finds that the ATF, which is in charge of policing the gun industry, is — quote — "frequently toothless and conciliatory, bending over backward to go easy on wayward dealers, and sometimes allowing guns to flow into the hands of criminals."

    A team of reporters looked at more than 2,000 gun inspections between 2015 and 2017. It found too many cases of dealers breaking the law without significant punishment, and managers who overrode recommendations to revoke gun licenses.

    It also found that dealers were inspected only once every seven years, on average.

    Nick Penzenstadler of USA Today is one of the lead investigative reporters, and joins me now.

    Nick, thank you so much for your time.

    I read the report. It's comprehensive. And every time there is another mass shooting in this country, we ask these questions: Where can this cycle be broken?

    Your investigation focuses on that point of sale of the gun. What did you find that the ATF is falling short on there? And what is an example you found?

  • Nick Penzenstadler:


    We found a two-part problem here. We found gun sellers not following the rules and not living up to their promise to do the paperwork correctly and to ask for identification and record all that information about gun buyers correctly. And then we also found the ATF, who came to inspect those gunshots, not following up on their inspections and revoking licenses or doing any meaningful punishment to correct this action.

  • Stephanie Sy:

    You specifically found that field investigators are coming up with recommendations and warnings. In some cases, they are recommending that a license to sell a gun be revoked. And higher-ups are overruling that.

    I guess the question is, why is that happening?

  • Nick Penzenstadler:

    Well, there is tremendous pressure to not shut down a gun shop, especially for the paperwork errors.

    But we're really focused on these willful violations, when a gun shop is given a second chance and a third chance, and they still can't seem to get it right. And many times, a field investigator, like you said, will recommend them for revocation, but then a higher-up will give them some more leniency and another chance to reform.

    And that is really based on this effort to get compliance vs. shutting down a business.

  • Stephanie Sy:

    Are there valid reasons for why they would overrule a recommendation to revoke a license? Is it because they want to keep businesses open? Or is there something more nefarious you found?

  • Nick Penzenstadler:

    We certainly saw many reasons.

    I mean, we saw reasons ranging from, this shop just opened, we need to give them a chance to get their feet under them, to, this shop has been open for decades, let's give them a break because this is only a few mistakes in hundreds of thousands of sales.

    So, we also saw that number based on volume. If a shop sold a ton of guns and they had a small number of errors, obviously, the ATF would give them more leniency.

    But, really, the concern ask is that the ATF is unwilling or unable to shut down shops because of the political pressure and the legal resources it takes to string those out.

  • Stephanie Sy:

    Because of political pressure.

    And gun shop owners seem to understand that. Your report suggests that former ATF officials believe that this culture of leniency is understood by gun shop owners.

    So, are we just talking about owners not filling out paperwork, Nick, or are we talking about real-world consequences? Did you find a connection between criminality and the lack of oversight that you report by the ATF?

  • Nick Penzenstadler:

    Yes, I mean, we found shops that were repeatedly warned that they were selling to straw buyers, people who are prohibited, and having someone else stand in for them, and then, months down the line, a gun purchased by a straw buyer is used in a violent crime.

    So, yes, these actions are not just paperwork issues. This is the crux of many criminal investigations, where police are looking at the records generated from these sales to identify where guns came from. So, this is a crucial link that the FBI and local police use to solve crime.

  • Stephanie Sy:

    And, Nick, what is the ATF's explanation for this leniency?

  • Nick Penzenstadler:

    The word from the ATF is that they really only go after the willful violators, they are only going to focus on the most serious issues, and they only have the resources to go after so many.

    There is also a federal law that says a gun shop can only be inspected once a year. And, obviously, they are not even hitting that, averaging about one every seven years.

  • Stephanie Sy:

    President Biden's current pick for heading up the ATF is known to be a staunch proponent of gun control. Do you see him having the authority to change this culture at the ATF if he is confirmed?

  • Nick Penzenstadler:


    David Chipman was on the Hill yesterday talking about this exact issue. One of his main points is that these shop owners should be alerting local authorities when someone comes in and tries to buy a gun illegally.

    If they are prohibited, they fill out the paperwork as committing a felony, it's likely that they could go on and commit more violent felonies. So, that was an issue that came up yesterday. And a lot of these problems could be solved with administrative action that don't require new laws, don't require this big political fight.

    It is really about focusing resources and changing how we view this regulatory structure from leniency and second chances and compliance to more of a crackdown.

  • Stephanie Sy:

    Nick Penzenstadler, journalist with USA Today, thank you.

  • Nick Penzenstadler:

    You're welcome.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And shortly after Stephanie recorded that interview, officials at the ATF wrote back with a response.

    It plans to hire, it says, 100 more investigators in the next year to increase compliance and enforcement. When there is willful disregard for regulations, the ATF says it will seek criminal prosecutions.

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