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Missing Link Found for Rifle

Saturday, November 2, 2002

   TACOMA, Wash. -- The trail of the Bushmaster XM-15 assault rifle used in the Washington, D.C., area sniper shootings ends abruptly here at Bull's Eye Shooter Supply, a sprawling waterfront firearms bazaar that was closed Thursday as federal agents continued to comb its records for clues.

    The shop's owner can't account for how the Maine-built weapon made its way from his store to a Chevrolet Caprice occupied by sniper suspects John Allen Muhammad and John Lee Malvo, who were arrested in Maryland last week. The weapon has been linked through ballistics tests to 11 of the 13 sniper shootings, as well as to slayings in Alabama and Louisiana.

    According to local press reports and law enforcement sources, agents with the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms (ATF) also have discovered that more than 300 other guns appear to have disappeared from Bull's Eye inventories without sales receipts.

    Bull's Eye has been in trouble before with the ATF, which discovered a batch of 150 missing guns during a 1999 compliance audit, sources said.

    The case provides a dramatic illustration of what gun-control advocates consider the loose regulation of the nation's estimated 104,000 licensed firearms dealers, which are overseen by just 600 ATF inspectors who must also oversee breweries and tobacco plants and have other responsibilities.

    In 1999, the ATF documented 21,000 guns missing from dealer inventories during spot checks. In the same year, only 13 dealers had their licenses revoked.

    Gun-control advocates argue that the system does little to discourage dealers from selling guns under the counter to felons in order to evade federally mandated background checks.

    "There are huge incentives to go around the system and very little chance of getting caught," said Kirsten Rand, with the Violence Policy Center in Washington, which favors strict restrictions on gun sales. "There is absolutely minimal oversight."

    ATF officials have repeatedly declined to comment on the Bull's Eye case. But an ATF spokesman, Jim Crandall in Washington, said the agency does its best with limited resources, paying particular attention to dealers suspected of skirting the law. Regular inspections are limited to one per year per dealer -- and there are not enough agents to inspect each dealer every year.

    Wayne LaPierre, executive vice president of the National Rifle Association, said that "if a gun dealer intentionally breaks the law, there ought to be prosecution." But LaPierre also accused gun-control advocates of seizing on the sniper case for political reasons. "Here we go again: Another tragedy and lurking around the corner are these gun-ban groups who are trying to twist it to their agenda," LaPierre said.

    Owners of other Tacoma area gun shops said past audits of their own stores had turned up small numbers of missing sales records. Even one or two would be a big deal, they said.

    Said Ralph Autrey, owner of Gun & Bow, which sells 700 to 800 firearms each year: "How does 350 get lost?"

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