By Lara Jakes Jordan
The Associated Press
WASHINGTON, DC — The ATF no longer routinely checks addresses of some buyers at gun shows after being accused of chilling sales at one show in 2005, the Justice Department reported Monday.
"We found that ATF's decisions to conduct investigative operations, including those in the Richmond area, were based on significant law enforcement intelligence from a variety of sources indicating that illegal activity was occurring or was about to occur at a specific gun show," the report concluded.
But the checks were part of ATF gun show investigations that appear to have been warranted, the 56-page report by Justice Department Inspector General Glenn A. Fine concluded.
An ATF spokesman agreed with the report's findings, calling it "an objective assessment of ATF's investigative operations at gun shows."
The so-called blanket residency checks sought to verify addresses for gun show buyers living in certain targeted areas. They were conducted mostly by agents from the Washington field office of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives. That office also handles investigations in parts of Virginia, including Richmond.
The ATF abandoned the checks five months after dealers at an August 2005 gun show in Richmond said sales plummeted from buyers being intimidated by police showing up at their homes — sparking congressional criticism.
A January 2006 memo from ATF headquarters advised agents against conducting residence checks "without reasonable suspicion that criminal violations may exist," the report noted.
Moreover, the U.S. attorney's office in Alexandria, Va., found the checks "were resource-intensive and rarely resulted in prosecutions for only providing a false address on federal firearms transaction documents."
Fine's report found the residency checks were part of ATF investigations at 195 gun shows nationwide that netted 121 arrests between 2004 and 2006. Of those arrests, 27 were conducted by the bureau's Washington field office. No other ATF office except Houston — also with 27 — netted as many arrests, the report showed.
Congress is considering giving local police easier access to gun-purchasing data to track down illegal firearms — over objections of the National Rifle Association, which says doing so would violate privacy rights.
The Senate is considering the provision as part of ATF's budget, and so far it has not been included in House-approved legislation to fix the national gun background check system that allowed a Virginia Tech student who killed 32 others to buy guns despite diagnosed mental health problems.
The NRA did not immediately return a call for comment.
Paul Helmke, president of the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence, said studies show that as many as 40 percent of firearms sold at gun shows do not involve background checks.
"When there are no background checks, it's a lot easier for someone like the Virginia Tech killer to get guns," Helmke said. "We want to help ATF do its job, and we're glad to see that the inspector general is backing them up in their attempts in the past to crack down on illegal guns."
Monday's report found that ATF has "no specific enforcement programs" that target gun shows. It concluded that ATF runs investigations at only a small number of shows, and usually only when agents have a reason to do so.
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Between 2,000 and 5,200 gun shows are held in the United States annually.