The following editorial appeared in today's Washington Post:
Somehow -- we have yet to learn how -- the Bushmaster XM-15 assault rifle used in the sniper shootings vanished from the stockpile at Bull's Eye Shooter Supply in Tacoma, Wash., without a sales receipt. It is bad enough that this one powerful weapon disappeared undocumented, but when agents with the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms went through the store's records they reportedly found that more than 300 other weapons appear to have vanished from Bull's Eye inventories without sales slips. It was not the first time that Bull's Eye was unable to explain the disappearance of firearms; sources have noted that the store has been in trouble before with ATF, which discovered 150 guns missing during a compliance audit.
Which points to one of the dirty open secrets of this nation's gun debate: Federal regulation of the 104,000 licensed firearms dealers is atrociously loose. ATF hasn't nearly enough agents to do annual inspections of all dealers. In the spot checks that it managed to conduct in 1999 alone, the agency documented 21,000 guns missing from dealer inventories. But federal laws prevent the agency from dealing with this effectively, even if it had enough agents. One law, for example, limits agents to one unannounced inspection of a gun dealer per year.
Opponents of more restrictive laws on gun ownership like to say they favor tougher enforcement of existing laws instead: Keep the guns away from criminals. Yet they work to keep one hand tied behind law enforcement's back. They ought to at least let the government enforce the laws that are on the books.
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