Guns over hair

Gun dealers have no state oversight

BY MARY SHANKLIN AND
CHARLES MINSHEW
ORLANDO SENTINEL / TNS

ORLANDO – Florida’s barbers, construction workers and talent agents face tougher oversight than gun dealers, who in Florida are only monitored by a short-staffed federal agency.

It’s harder to get a barber’s license than it is to get a gun dealer’s license in the state of Florida.
It’s harder to get a barber’s license than it is to get a gun dealer’s license in the state of Florida.

Cosmetologists and other licensed professionals in the Sunshine State are required, for instance, to self-report felony and misdemeanor convictions within 30 days. In addition, state law enforcement alerts Florida’s licensing agency about any drug trafficking convictions of licensed professionals.

Unlike 13 states that license gun dealers, Florida’s firearms retailers have no state oversight. Dealer licensing and monitoring falls under the watch of the federal Bureau of Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives.

Gaining attention
Oversight of dealers has gained more attention in recent months because of their role in helping vet potential buyers. A dealer in Jensen Beach, for example, turned away Omar Mateen, who later purchased a semi-automatic rifle just days before he shot and killed 49 people at Pulse nightclub on June 12.

University of Central Florida professor Jay Corzine, who has studied homicides and firearms, said state licensing would not eliminate problematic dealers, but it would better safeguard the public from corrupt dealers.

“I don’t care if my barber has a checkered past, but people selling firearms is another story,” he said. “There are dealers who have committed felonies but not been arrested, so there is no fail-safe system. But state licensing could provide an added layer of protection.”

Federal approval only
In Florida, to get a dealer license and renewal after three years, applicants must go through the ATF. A federal licensing center reviews applications and fingerprint cards. It also conducts background checks. Field officers interview applicants and recommend approval or denial.

In addition to denying applicants for felony and domestic violence convictions, ATF can deny them for failure to comply with state or local laws, including zoning infractions. Across the U.S., the denial rate was one for every 636 applicants in 2014.

Florida’s contractors, Realtors and other professional licensees face renewal every two years. State licensing also gives Florida officials some control over who conducts business in the state. The state Department of Business and Professional Regulation, for instance, solicits complaints about licensees and publicizes disciplinary actions against them.

And Florida’s Office of Financial Regulation, another state licensing agency, requires collection agencies to renew their license every year and the agency is notified immediately if a licensee is arrested.

Self-reporting required
The state gives its licensed professionals 30 days to report misdemeanor and felony convictions. If a licensee does not report, he can face disciplinary action up to revocation of the license. When a licensee is convicted of a crime related to drug trafficking, the state immediately suspends his license.

There is no self-reporting mechanism for gun dealers.

“We educate them on what’s prohibited, but there’s no self-reporting procedure in place,” said Mary Harmon Salter, area supervisor for the ATF’s Tampa area office. Dealers, she added, undergo background checks initially, when they move and when they renew their license.

Few inspections
For years, the agency has had to do more with less. During a recent five-year period, the agency’s staffing shrunk by 1.5 percent. It lost 81 staffers between 2009 and 2014 but its responsibilities grew, with a 22 percent increase in federal firearms licensees, which includes dealers, pawn shop brokers, collectors and others.

In 2009, the agency inspected one in every 5.3 dealers. Five years later, it inspected one in every 7.4 dealers, according to the agency’s most recent report on firearms commerce.

ATF spokesman Kevin Richardson said the agency has to prioritize. Among other things, it focuses on dealers who sell guns that end up at crime scenes.

“Just because they haven’t been inspected doesn’t mean they are doing something wrong,” Richardson said.

Partisan divide
In states across the country, gun dealer licensing and other firearms-related measures generally win support of Democrats and face opposition from Republicans. New York, Indiana and California are among more than a dozen states that have some form of state licensing.

Gun store sales clerks in Indiana must have a state license and law enforcement officials must attest to their “good character and reputation.” In California, dealers must obtain about a half-dozen licenses or permits by local and state regulators. In New York, dealers have to be licensed and maintain records of sales.

In Georgia in 2014, the state repealed gun control measures including state licensing of dealers. The legislation was driven from concern that residents were losing their constitutional rights to own firearms.

In Florida, Rep. Randolph Bracy, an Orlando Democrat who served this year on the state’s House Civil Justice Committee, said he would introduce a bill calling for state licensing next year if he wins a state Senate seat he is seeking.

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