Stricter standards for gun dealers hard to enforce

A key provision of President Barack Obama’s package of proposals to curb illegal gun sales would require more gun sellers — especially those who do business online and at gun shows — to be licensed and conduct background checks on potential buyers.

But gun control advocates and opponents alike said the new guidelines will be hard to enforce because the standards for determining whether sellers are subject to the rules are vague.

Federal law requires anyone “engaged in the business of selling firearms” to have a Federal Firearms License, but laws in Ohio and other states permit transactions between private parties without background checks, allowing dealers to routinely side-step the licensing and background check requirements by simply claiming to be collectors.

“There’s no question that there are people who do that, but I don’t see how this (Obama’s proposal) is going to change that,” said John Thyne, owner of Peabody Sports, a gun shop in Centerville. “The rules are really unenforceable and completely unnecessary. The law is already in place that says people who are engaged in selling firearms for profit need a license. This isn’t going to change a thing.”

While the new guidance doesn’t clarify the difference between dealers and private sellers, it recommends that law enforcement officers consider other factors when determining who is violating the law.

For example, anyone selling guns in the original packaging and bought expressly for the purpose of resale would be subject to licensing and background check requirements, no matter how few or how many guns they sell.

And sellers who travel from one gun show to another advertising their wares also would be subject to the requirements, regardless of the volume of guns they sell.

The new guidance is intended to narrow the circumstances under which someone might claim they are simply conducting a transaction between private parties.

But Thyne said even if dealers are held to stricter standards, the federal government doesn’t have the time or manpower to enforce existing gun laws, much less track down and prosecute every individual who should be licensed to sell under the new rules.

“I’ve talked to ATF agents about some things that have gone down at gun shows, and their basic comment was we don’t have the manpower to cover it,” said Thyne, adding that the president acknowledged the manpower shortage when he laid out plans to hire additional FBI personnel to process background checks.

Last year, 748,502 background checks were conducted in Ohio as part of the process of purchasing a firearm, according to FBI statistics. While only 168 gun sales were conducted in the state by private sellers, the figures don’t include sales to buyers whose backgrounds were never checked.

“That’s the thing nobody really can track, and that’s what this new guidance is designed to address,” said Toby Hoover, founder of the Ohio Coalition Against Gun Violence. “It’s just too easy for felons and other criminals to buy guns without background checks.

“The new rules can help us get at least one step removed from a situation where (criminals) can go to a gun show and buy a gun without anybody knowing who they are. If you’re buying a weapon, at the very least, you need to be asked whether you’re a felon or a domestic abuser.”

Hoover thinks the criminal penalties for failing to comply with requirements may lead gun show operators and others to “self-enforce.” Under the law, dealers are subject to penalties of up to five years in prison and fines up to $250,000 for failing to get licensed and conduct background checks.

“People who run the gun shows don’t want anybody at their shows breaking the law because that’s their livelihood,” Hoover said. “So I don’t think you’re going to see as many tables set up at gun shows advertising no background checks because you can’t just say you’re a private seller anymore.”

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