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Gun laws in America and how the ATF was set up to fail

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"Ghost guns" seized in federal law enforcement actions are displayed at the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives (ATF) field office in Glendale, California on April 18, 2022. (ROBYN BECK/AFP via Getty Images)
"Ghost guns" seized in federal law enforcement actions are displayed at the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives (ATF) field office in Glendale, California on April 18, 2022. (ROBYN BECK/AFP via Getty Images)

Something many of us have heard time and time again during the debate on gun control is:

"We need to enforce the thousands of gun laws already on the books. Prosecuting criminals who misuse firearms works."

That's Wayne LaPierre, VP and CEO of the NRA, at a Senate hearing just a month after the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting in Connecticut.

But how can this enforcement happen when the very agency charged with doing so are handicapped by Congress?

"We have an agency that has the power to protect Americans and we are not funding it, we are not supporting it and we have done outrageous things to it," Sen. Cory Booker said.

Today, On Point: How the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives has been set up to fail.

Guests

Champe Barton, reporter who covers community violence and the gun industry for The Trace, a non-profit newsroom focused on gun violence. (@champebarton)

David Chipman, special agent in the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives for 25 years, monitoring firearm trafficking from Virginia to New York City. (@davidchipman)

Also Featured

Janet Delana, she sued the gun dealer who sold a firearm to her daughter despite her severe mental illness.

Mark Jones, a former ATF employee.

Joseph Bisbee, a former ATF employee.

David Blake Johnson, associate professor of economics at the University of Central Missouri.

Transcript: Highlights From The Show's Open

911 OPERATOR: 911, what's your emergency?

COLBY WEATHERS: My name is Colby Weathers. I live in Wellington, Missouri, and I shot my father.

911 OPERATOR: Okay, you shot your father?

WEATHERS: Yes. He's just laying there. And there's a ton of blood. I'm pretty sure he's dead.

MEGHNA CHAKRABARTI: On the morning of June 27th, 2012, 38-year-old Colby Weathers drove about ten miles from her home of Wellington, Missouri, to a pawn shop in Odessa, Missouri.

She bought a gun and drove back to Wellington. Colby walked into her parents house. Her father was sitting at his computer. Tex Delana had his back turned when Colby shot him.

911 OPERATOR: Is he conscious right now? Are you close to him?

WEATHERS: I can't look at him. He's been laying on the kitchen floor since I did it.

CHAKRABARTI: Colby Weathers struggled with severe mental illness for years. She had been in and out of hospitals for psychiatric treatment. She told the 911 dispatcher:

WEATHERS: I'm not saying I've been having a lot of problems. I'm not violent. I don't want to hurt anybody else. I swear. I know I'm going to get arrested. I know. But I just, I'm not. I'll be standing out on the front porch. I've been insane for a long time.

CHAKRABARTI: This is On Point. I'm Meghna Chakrabarti. Colby Weathers should have never had a gun. There are federal laws already on the books intended to thwart tragedies just like this. But those laws have weaknesses. And the federal agencies charged with enforcing those gun laws have weaknesses, too. And those weaknesses are by design.

JANET DELANA: I always felt like that she was on a cliff, hanging on by her fingertips and she was going to fall any time.

CHAKRABARTI: Janet Delana is Colby's mother. Janet says Colby herself had never really been into firearms. But one day in May 2012, she came home with a gun. That shocked her parents, and they took it away. But Janet worried Colby would try to buy another one. So she called the chief of police for help.

DELANA: And he said, Oh, my God. He said, Nobody needs a gun less than her. I said, I know. What can I do? And he said, Well, I'll make some phone calls for you.

CHAKRABARTI: Janet was too scared to wait. She called the Federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, the agency charged with enforcing national gun laws. ATF didn't help. They told her to call the FBI. So she did.

DELANA: But he said the only thing you can do is to get your doctor to send the medical records and have her added to the list.

CHAKRABARTI: The FBI agent was referring to the National Instant Criminal Background Check System, which can contain limited information about a person's mental health history that might disqualify them from owning a firearm.

DELANA: But unless the doctor sends the medical records to them, their hands are tied. And he said that's where we're stuck. ... And I said, well, what if she buys a gun again? He said, Ma'am, I don't know what to tell you. He said, I really don't know what to tell you.

CHAKRABARTI: So Janet made a last ditch effort, and on June 25th, 2012, Janet called Odessa Gun and Pawn, the place where Colby had bought that first gun. Court records show she spoke with the store manager ... the man who had sold the gun to Colby.

DELANA: I told him the whole situation and please do not sell her a gun. I said, you know, this is her Social Security number. I said, If you want me to come in, I'll bring a picture. Whatever. But I said, she cannot have a gun. And they just well, if somebody comes in to buy guns, we have to sell it. And hung up on me. And I was like, at this point, I was like, I don't know what to do. I just flat don't know what to do.

CHAKRABARTI: Two days later, June 27th, 2012, Janet was at work. Her husband, Tex, stepped out for a few minutes to buy gas for the lawnmower. And while they were gone, Colby got in the car and drove back to Odessa Gun and Pawn. Working in the store that day: Manager Derrick Dady.

In Missouri, licensed gun dealers are not required to sell weapons to everyone. State law says that dealers can refuse a sale if they, quote, choose in their individual judgment to not complete the sale or transfer of a firearm for articulable reasons specific to that transaction, end quote. And one of those articulable reasons? The buyer could use the weapon to harm themselves.

Court records show that in the call just 48 hours earlier, Janet had pleaded with Dady, saying that Corby had already tried to take her own life. I'm begging you as a mother, Janet said. If she comes back in, please don't sell her a gun. But when Colby came back in, Dady sold her a 45-caliber semiautomatic pistol and a box of ammunition.

Colby Weathers had recently been put on a high dose of new medication. It wasn't working. Janet remembers calling the doctor and saying Colby was ten times worse than she'd ever been. On June 27th, when Colby bought the gun, store manager Derrick Dady said Colby looked nervous and in a hurry. According to court records, Janet says Colby then drove to a local convenience store for a pack of Cigarettes.

DELANA: There was a customer in the store, who was a teacher at the high school, so he knew her. And then the little clerk. And both of them testified that she was completely lost, just completely out of it. You could tell there was something wrong with her.

CHAKRABARTI: Less than one hour later, Colby drove home and shot her father in the back.

DELANA: She doesn't have a whole lot of memories of it. She was in such a fugue state. She said it wasn't even Dad. It was like, You've got to kill that demon. You've got to kill that demon. You've got to kill that demon.

CHAKRABARTI: Colby called 911. She told the dispatcher she wanted to kill herself.

911 OPERATOR: Okay. You, your say Father?

WEATHERS: Yes. I tried to kill myself first.

911 OPERATOR: Okay. Where's your gun right now, ma'am?

WEATHERS: I don't know. I put it down and I can't remember where I put it.

CHAKRABARTI: Colby Weathers was charged with murder in September 2014. She pleaded not guilty by reason of insanity. A judge accepted her plea and committed her to a Missouri mental health facility. She's been there ever since. Colby has finally received a proper diagnosis and is now receiving effective treatment for bipolar schizoaffective disorder.

Odessa Gun and Pawn ran the federal background check on Colby each time she bought a gun. And because Colby's mental health records were never put into the federal reporting system, Colby passed the background check both times. But official ATF guidance instructs firearms dealers that they should not rely exclusively on the results of a federal background check when choosing whether to make a sale.

However, in court, Charles Doleshal, owner of Odessa Gun and Pawn, testified that he instructed employees to never deny sales to anyone who passed the background check. Odessa Gun and Pawn was also already well known to federal firearms regulators.

ATF had cited the dealer many times for violating federal gun laws. According to court documents, in 2010, ATF cited the gun dealer for 15 violations. In 2014, two years after Colby killed her father, ATF cited Odessa Gun and Pawn 225 times. Janet Delana sued Odessa Gun and Pawn for negligent entrustment. They agreed to a $2.2 million settlement in 2016. The store remains in business and retains its federal license to sell firearms.

Janet believes her husband should be alive today. She says laws already on the books should have stopped Colby from getting a gun. But they didn't, because something else has stopped those laws from working.

DELANA: And how sad is that? How sad is that? That there are more people out there like me in the same situation trying to get help for their loved one. And then tragedy happens and Oh, you know, she murdered somebody. I guess she really needs help. That's the tragedy. That's the tragedy.

CHAKRABARTI: Janet Delana in Wellington, Missouri. Champe Barton is a reporter at The Trace, an independent nonprofit newsroom that covers guns in America. And he is in New York. And he joins us now. Champe, welcome to On Point.

CHAMPE BARTON: Thanks for having me.

CHAKRABARTI: So as you heard, Janet's story really shines a bright light on two large issues. There's the gaps in the federal background check system. And then there's also gun dealers who repeatedly violate federal regulations but are allowed to stay open. Now, Champe, you and a team at the Trace investigated years of ATF data on gun dealers. So let's talk about that for a second. Gun dealers that had repeated citations, what percentage of them were actually shut down by ATF?

BARTON: A very small percentage. I think it was somewhere in the realm of like 3% were supposed to be revoked. And then more than half of those revocations were downgraded by more senior personnel at the ATF. So it was somewhere around like a half a percent to 1%.

CHAKRABARTI: Half a percent to 1%. Okay. Out of what are we talking about? Potentially thousands of of licensed dealers, or?

BARTON: Well, this is just the data set that we had and that data set contains something north of 2,000 inspections. There's obviously many more inspections that are conducted. The ATF said that in an overlapping time period with the records that we had, they had actually done like twice as many inspections. But these were the records that we had. But it's a fairly large sample size. And so you do have this, like, you know, vanishingly small percentage that actually get revoked of you know, thousands of inspections.

CHAKRABARTI: And these are the licensed gun dealers we're talking about that have been repeatedly cited by ATF. Now, you talked about the inspections. There are, what, more than 130,000 federal firearms licensees in this country. How many inspectors are there?

BARTON: There's not that many inspectors. I think that the agency had a staff of something something north of like 500 or something inspectors. If I'm remembering, correctly. I might be wrong. But I know that the the agency was supposed to add more inspectors around 2016 after a mass shooting in San Bernardino, California. But Republicans, I'm fairly certain, blocked that effort.

CHAKRABARTI: Right. So 500 or so. We're seeing a little bit more recently, maybe about 700 ATF inspectors. But again, that's out of 130,000 federal firearms dealers in this country that those inspectors are supposed to oversee. So this hour, what we're doing is we're taking a look at the laws that are already on the books regarding gun safety in America and the agency charged with enforcing those laws, the ATF, and whether both those laws and the agency have weaknesses in them by design.

Related Reading

The Trace: "The ATF Catches Thousands of Lawbreaking Gun Dealers Every Year. It Shuts Down Very Few." — "In a sweeping investigation, The Trace and USA TODAY found the federal agency charged with policing the gun industry let dealers get away with falsifying records and selling firearms without background checks."

USA Today: "Their guns fueled Chicago crime. When they broke the law, the ATF went easy." — "Chicago's mayor identified gun stores whose wares consistently wound up in city crimes. ATF records show the agency had been lenient on them."

This program aired on June 9, 2022.

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