Who is a gun dealer? At President Obama’s urging, the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives has come up with guidance — titled “Do I Need a License to Buy and Sell Firearms?” — that raises as many questions as it answers.
WASHINGTON — What makes a gun dealer?
President Obama on Tuesday plunged into the murky endeavor of defining who, under the law, is in the business of selling firearms.
What resulted was guidance from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) — titled “Do I Need a License to Buy and Sell Firearms?” — that raises as many questions as answers.
It doesn’t define a dealer by the number of guns sold, the dollar value or the frequency of sales. The definition isn’t determined by sales over the Internet or at a gun show. And it relies on gun sellers to step forward — under penalty of heavy fines and jail time if they fail to do so.
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“That’s been the problem to date — that there hasn’t been a clear working definition to figure out who is a dealer and isn’t,” Kari Hong, who teaches law at Boston College, said in a telephone interview.
The definition is important because a dealer must get a license and submit buyers’ names for an instant criminal-background check before selling them guns. Yet the federal gun-control act of 1986 provides an exemption for people who sell guns from their personal collection or as a hobby, and it sets no conventional measure for determining when a hobby becomes a business.
That has let some sellers operate under the legal radar at gun shows, at flea markets, from kitchen tables or on the Internet.
Gun-safety advocates say this “gun-show loophole” has been exploited by some sellers. Chelsea Parsons, vice president for guns and crime policy at the Center for American Progress, a Washington policy group generally aligned with the administration, said the lack of clarity has let high-volume weapons dealers operate online and at gun shows without conducting background checks, potentially selling arms to criminals.
The 15-page guidance from ATF underscores how opaque the issue remains. “Federal law does not establish a ‘bright-line’ rule for when a federal firearms license is required,” it says.
ATF included nine scenarios aimed at helping sellers understand if they should obtain a license.
“Debby has three handguns at home, and decides that she no longer wants two of them,” one of the examples says. For the purposes of the law, the fictional Debby isn’t a dealer.
Aside from that example, none of the others include any numbers specifying how many guns are involved or how much money is made. They employ open-ended terms such as “substantial amount of money,” “multiple firearms,” and “frequently.”
“Doug regularly attends gun shows and rents a table to display firearms for sale,” one of them reads. “He makes a substantial amount of money annually, and uses this money to live on.”
According to ATF, Doug has to obtain a license to continue selling guns and shouldn’t be exempted. The penalty for failing to register is a maximum of five years in prison and a $250,000 fine.
“Absent objective criteria you can see how that can quickly become confusing,” Hong of Boston College said.
The National Shooting Sports Foundation said in a statement that the new guidance for who must register as a licensed gun dealer “needs considerable clarification.”