Say goodbye to your friendly neighborhood gun dealer

In a little-noticed victory for gun control advocates across the nation, the number of gun dealers in the United States has plummeted 78 percent in the past 10 years as tens of thousands of home-based dealers surrendered their federal licenses.

The drop shows how the gun debate has moved from a national stage — where gun control advocates lost congressional battles to ban assault weapons and to sue gun manufacturers — to local zoning boards that are creating a growing web of fees and regulations that indirectly restrict firearms sales.

“The gun control agenda has evolved from the halls of Congress and the courts,” said Andrew Arulanandam, director of public affairs for the National Rifle Association (NRA). “Now we’re seeing it evolve to the micro level in local municipalities.”

But what looks like welcome news to gun opponents might just have driven gun sales off the books, as fewer personal gun sales are logged, vetted and tracked by the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF).

Whether that has led to more illegal gun trafficking is open to debate.

“Most of these guys (who are no longer licensed) were just home-based dealers who did gun shows on the weekends as a part-time job,” said Mark Koscielski, who is fighting a zoning battle to hold on as the last remaining gun store in Minneapolis. “Now they revert to private collectors, so they’re free to sell without federal background checks. They’re private sales.”

Once more numerous than gas stations, people who held the government’s most basic gun-dealer license totaled nearly a quarter-million in 1994. Last year, the number fell to fewer than 55,000, according to a recent report by the nonprofit Violence Policy Center, based in Washington.

“The sharp drop in gun dealers is one of the most important _ and little noticed _ victories in the effort to reduce firearms violence in America,” said Marty Langley, a policy analyst for the Violence Policy Center.

Gun enthusiasts dispute that the number of gun dealers _ or guns _ has much to do with the number of gun deaths in America, which declined by almost 25 percent between 1993 and 2003, according to the latest figures from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

“It doesn’t mean there are fewer guns out there to be purchased or manufactured or sold,” said Hamline University law school professor Joseph Olson, a gun rights advocate.

According to the ATF, the number of guns in the United States was at an all-time high last year, with an estimated 223 million firearms. Experts say sales continue to increase in commercial gun stores.

But both sides agree that several factors converged to bring about a decline in the number of licensed gun dealers: First, Clinton-era reforms increased fees from $30 to $200 for three-year licenses, discouraging casual gun collectors who rarely bought or sold firearms. Applicants also were required to submit photographs and fingerprints.

Most important, the ATF began strictly enforcing a provision in the 1968 Gun Control Act stipulating that license holders be “engaged in the business.”

Suddenly, thousands of home-based gun dealers found themselves disqualified for a federal license by virtue of local residential zoning codes.

“When you had to prove that you could be allowed to exist by zoning, there were a lot of guys and women who had to give up their licenses,” said Brian Van Kleek, owner of the Wolf’s Den Gun Shop in Hugo, Minn.

Among those fighting to keep a license is Koscielski, whose gun shop was found to be in violation of Minneapolis zoning codes earlier this month. He says Minneapolis and St. Paul, like most major cities, “have virtually zoned out gun shops.”

The ATF estimated that in 1992 as many as 74 percent of Type 1 federal firearms licenses _ the basic license to sell guns _ were used to operate out of residences.

That number is now down to slightly more than 50 percent.

Pushing back against the pressure, the NRA has successfully lobbied Congress for the past two years to hold back ATF money used to enforce licensing provisions based on a “lack of business activity” _ basically, provisions targeting home-based dealers who have run afoul of local zoning ordinances.

The NRA argues the enforcement effort is misdirected. “Why would you squander a very finite amount of resources on law-abiding citizens?” asked Arulanandam. “Put your focus on the bad guys.”

Gun rights advocates emphasize that most guns used in crime are obtained illegally, not through licensed gun dealers, the majority of whom sell fewer than three guns a year.

“They’re selling them to their poker buddies, they aren’t selling them to criminals,” Olson said. “The crooks have all the guns they want.”

But in its report this month, the Violence Policy Center argues that ” ‘kitchen table’ dealers remain a source for criminal gun traffickers,” and that the NRA’s opposition could eventually reverse the downward trend in gun-dealer licenses.

A 2000 ATF report said that licensed dealers are involved in less than 10 percent of trafficking investigations, but that cases involving license holders “were associated with the largest total number of illegally diverted firearms.”