WASHINGTON — Tougher laws and stricter enforcement cost nearly 200,000 U.S. gun dealers their licenses since the mid-1990s, a new study shows.
Led by remarkably sharp declines in states including California, Florida and Washington, the number of federally licensed firearms dealers fell 79 percent nationwide since 1994. In that year, Congress adopted new gun-control measures that still spark fiery debate.
"The sharp drop in gun dealers is one of the most important, and little noticed, victories in the effort to reduce firearms violence in America," declared Marty Langley, a policy analyst with the Violence Policy Center.
The decline is undeniable. What it means is more controversial.
"They're trying to pump their stats up," complained Bill Mayfield, a longtime gun dealer in Fresno, Calif. "It looks good, but what they're doing is pursuing an anti-gun, anti-American point of view."
In 1994, 245,628 U.S. residents held federal licenses allowing them to sell firearms. In California alone, the nation's most populous state, there were 20,148 license holders.
Now, there are 50,630 of the so-called Type 1 federal firearms licenses nationwide. In California, the number of licenses fell to 2,120 this year.
The number of firearms licenses likewise fell more than 80 percent since 1994 in Florida, Washington, Louisiana and Georgia, among other states. Even the state with the smallest reduction in licensed dealers — Montana_ saw a 68 percent decline.
"As the number of licensed dealers has dropped, it's become more manageable for the (Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives) to enforce," Langley said.
The Violence Policy Center is a gun-control advocacy group funded by the Chicago-based Joyce Foundation. The foundation also finances other efforts, including the Illinois Council Against Handgun Violence and a Great Lakes States Summit on Handgun Violence, which was held in April.
The decline in licenses began after Congress approved in 1993 the so-called Brady Bill, named for former White House press secretary James Brady, who was wounded in a 1981 assassination attempt on President Reagan. The 1993 law, and a subsequent 1994 anti-crime law, imposed new restrictions.
The firearms licenses that once cost $10 a year now cost $200 a year for the first three years. License applicants now must submit photographs and fingerprints and inform local police of their plans. In many cases, those losing licenses were so-called "kitchen table" dealers, who operated from their homes rather than from formal storefronts.
"Smaller shops simply can't afford some of that," said Ashley Varner, a spokesperson for the National Rifle Association, and "people in rural areas have a harder time getting firearms if they aren't near a large store."
Nonetheless, Varner said Justice Department records indicate total firearm sales have remained roughly even in recent years.
Starting with the Clinton administration, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives has been more aggressive in monitoring license holders. Officials have insisted that license holders be "actively engaged in the business" of selling guns if they're to hold licenses.
Gun-related crimes have fallen over the past year, as have the percentage of Americans who say they own firearms. In 1993, for instance, the Justice Department recorded more than 1 million non-fatal crimes involving firearms. By 2005, the number of non-fatal gun-related crimes had fallen to 419,000.
"The fact that there are fewer gun dealers out there means there are fewer sources of guns for street criminals," Langley said.
Gun-control advocates hope to tighten regulations further, for instance, by permitting federal authorities to conduct more than the annual compliance inspection that's currently allowed. Congress, though, hasn't shown significant interest so far in renewing gun debate this year.
The study can be found at http://www.vpc.org/studies/dealers07.pdf