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N.C. Gun Stores Beat BATFE

Friday, November 21, 2008

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N.C. Gun Stores Beat BATFE

In an all-too-rare court victory, a pair of North Carolina gun stores has defeated an attempt by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (BATFE) to revoke the stores’ federal dealers’ licenses. The win came in a Sept. 16 opinion by Senior U.S. District Judge Malcolm J. Howard of the Eastern District of North Carolina.

The two stores, Jim’s Gun Jobbery in Fayetteville and Jim’s Pawn & Gun in Wilmington, are owned by the same family, and the Fayetteville store is the largest gun store in North Carolina. BATFE began revocation proceedings in 2004, even though a 2001 BATFE “warning letter” commended one of the stores for its “concerted effort to comply with the laws and regulations.”

After reviewing BATFE’s decision, Judge Howard found that record keeping errors by the stores “do not constitute the type of ‘conscious, intentional, deliberate, [and] voluntary’ actions that are deemed willful.” Since a dealer’s license can only be revoked for “willful” violations, the bureau “was without authority to revoke [the stores’] licenses.”

Since a dealer’s license can only be revoked for “willful” violations, the bureau “was without authority to revoke [the stores’] licenses.”

Attorney Richard E. Gardiner, who represented the two stores, commented, “We were pleased that Judge Howard took the time to understand that Congress meant what it said when it authorized license revocations only when violations of the regulations were willful and rejected BATFE’s argument that simply repeating a human error in a minuscule number of instances was enough to revoke a license.”

In fact, Judge Howard found that the stores’ efforts to improve their records showed “a conscious effort to comply with the [Gun Control Act].” The judge pointed to the stores’ employee training programs and operating procedures as evidence that these were law-abiding businesses. Storeowner James Faircloth noted, “As a small business, we have always worked diligently to comply with the complex regulations and requirements of the BATFE. It has always been, and remains, our top priority to ensure that we have complete and accurate firearms records. We believe these efforts were recognized by the judge and provided the foundation for his decision in our case.”

The case also sheds light on anti-gun groups’ favorite talking point about “missing guns.” For example, one anti-gun website called Jim’s a “rogue dealer” that had been “bleeding guns illegally for 10 years.”

But Judge Howard’s review told a different story. The judge noted that in BATFE’s 2004 inspection of the Fayetteville store, the agency found 230 “open dispositions” out of more than 129,000 guns acquired. While anti-gunners would spin these as “missing guns,” a closer review showed that 68 of the guns were actually still in the store. Most of the others had been mistakenly entered twice in the store’s acquisition records, sent to manufacturers for repair, returned to customers, or were otherwise properly accounted for.

Overall, in fact, the stores’ record keeping compared favorably to that of BATFE itself. The bureau reported 76 guns and 418 laptop computers missing in a recent audit by the Justice Department’s Office of Inspector General. The injustice of a troubled agency trying to hold dealers to a higher standard than it applies to itself only demonstrates the need to pass a comprehensive reform bill, such as H.R. 4900 in the current Congress (see “Time to Stop BATFE Abuses,” April 2008).

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