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Self Inflicted Wounds:
Are We (Gun Owners) Our Own Worst Enemies?

Wa. Senators Seek Info on Gun Shop

By PAUL QUEARY
Associated Press Writer

November 1, 2002, 3:27 AM EST

TACOMA, Wash. -- The rifle used in the sniper attacks vanished from a Washington gun shop without a paper trail, apparently along with hundreds of other weapons.

Although federal law requires gun dealers to keep careful track of their stock, gun-control activists say the law is routinely ignored and only loosely enforced.

When authorities arrested John Muhammad and John Lee Malvo last week in Maryland, the Bushmaster .223 rifle found in their car was quickly traced to Bull's Eye, a bustling Tacoma establishment where a constant stream of customers browses the wares and uses the indoor shooting range.

But the store couldn't produce a record of who had bought the gun and reports quickly surfaced that an audit two years ago found 150 guns missing from Bull's Eye's inventory with no indication of where the weapons had gone. Further digging turned up 340 more missing guns, The Seattle Times has reported.

Neither Brian Borgelt, the store's owner, nor Martha Tebbenkamp, a spokeswoman for the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms, will discuss the shop's record of missing guns. Borgelt has insisted he did nothing wrong.

But Matt Bennett, a spokesman Americans for Gun Safety, said it's not unusual for large numbers of weapons to go missing.

"Unfortunately it is not extraordinary because there is so little of prosecution and administrative oversight of gun dealers," Bennett said. "They're sold out the back door."

Washington Sen. Patty Murray and five of her Senate colleagues on Thursday wrote Treasury Secretary Paul O'Neill, who oversees the ATF, demanding more information about past investigations at Bull's Eye.

"We would appreciate clarification of a number of issues related to this case so that Congress may take appropriate steps to ensure that federal firearms laws are being adequately enforced," the senators wrote.

More than 100,000 people are licensed by the ATF to sell firearms in the United States. Theoretically, the ATF inspects them all to make sure they properly document every sale. Each violation can earn a dealer as much as a year in prison.

In practice, the ATF has only a few thousand agents, many of whom perform tasks other than firearms enforcement, and prosecutions are rare.

Though Bull's Eye was inspected -- and agents found violations -- the ATF won't say what factors might have offset those violations, and Tebbenkamp wouldn't discuss the agency's policies on enforcing the law against firearms dealers.

Americans for Gun Safety figures there are more than 20 million adults who are ineligible to buy or own guns, including convicted felons, domestic abusers, dishonorably discharged soldiers, the mentally ill -- a big market for a gun dealer willing to wink at the law.

"They know that the buyer will not pass the background check, but they want to make the sale anyway," Bennett said. "This is a $900 gun."

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On the Net:

Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms: http://www.atf.treas.gov/

Americans for Gun Safety: http://ww2.americansforgunsafety.com/

Copyright 2002, The Associated Press