updated 7/19/2004 5:33:03 PM ET 2004-07-19T21:33:03

Only about 4.5 percent of the nation’s federally licensed gun dealers are checked each year to ensure they comply with firearms laws, far below the goals set by the agency that does the exams, the Justice Department said Monday.

At that rate, it would take the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives 22 years to inspect all 104,000 federally licensed gun dealers, said a review by Glenn A. Fine, the Justice Department inspector general. ATF’s goal is to check each dealer once every three years.

ATF Director Carl Truscott said the agency’s 420 inspectors could never keep pace with that many gun dealers. Because of limited resources, he said, ATF focuses on dealers with a history of violations and on a program of random inspections.

Calling the Justice Department review “constructive criticism,” Truscott said in a written response that ATF is “committed to continuing to improve its inspection procedures.”

The ATF review is the first since the bureau moved in 2003 from the Treasury Department to the Justice Department as part of the government reorganization that created the Homeland Security Department.

Gun dealers are supposed to be able to account for all firearms they have bought and sold and to report to the government all sales of multiple weapons as well as all thefts of firearms. The inspections are intended to ensure dealers comply with these and other rules.

ATF also checks the applications of nearly 8,000 new firearms businesses each year. The Justice Department review found ATF often relies solely on a telephone call to do that, rather than a more thorough face-to-face meeting.

Federal licenses rarely revoked
The review also found ATF rarely revokes federal firearms licenses — only 54 such revocations occurred in 2002 out of some 1,800 inspections — and it often takes more than a year for the agency to successfully take away a dealer’s license.

“A consistent and timely inspection process is essential to identify and respond to any dealers who are violating the law and also to reduce the availability of illegal firearms to criminals,” Fine said. “Our review found significant areas in the ATF’s inspection program that need improvement.”

The review made nine recommendations for changes in the inspection process, development of a tracking system for license revocations and improved use of gun tracing capabilities.

ATF has accepted most of the recommendations and is already implementing several changes, detailed in a June memo from Truscott to the agency’s field offices. Among other things, the memo detailed ways inspectors can detect if dealers are conducting illegal weapons trafficking.

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