Gwen Moore isn't known for being very reserved. She’s been an outspoken member of Congress for 10 years. But a couple weeks ago, when a jury in her Milwaukee district handed down a massive $6 million judgment against a local gun store, she was practically “dancing in the streets,” she said in a recent interview.
“I know there’s a long way to go—it’s been appealed—but I am just delighted,” the congresswoman said.
Moore was referring to the case against Badger Guns, a shop in West Milwaukee (now operating under a different name and license) that has become the most notorious example of a group she calls “bad apple” gun dealers. Across the country, 90% of guns used in crimes can be traced back to the most negligent 5% of dealers, according to the Brady Campaign, a gun-control advocacy group. These shops evade required background checks, lie on sales forms, or ignore obvious signs of illegal purchases. But because of the gun industry's unique protections, they often get away with it.
So with the surprising defeat of Badger creating some wind at her back, Moore is announcing a new bill aimed at cracking down on bad apples. And while it’s unlikely to pass a Congress defined by gridlock and resistance to gun control, Moore’s bill reveals the shocking extent to which the worst gun dealers in America are allowed to operate with a freedom from oversight unheard of in other industries.
“We see the carnage every single day. But I bet my constituents don’t really know how little gun regulation there actually is,” said Moore, a Democrat and the first black House member elected by Wisconsin.
Badger Guns is the exception that proves the rule—it was only the second liability case brought to trial against a gun store since 2005, when Congress passed a law that shields them from legal action in almost all cases like it. The jury, backed up by surveillance footage, found that a Badger clerk knowingly allowed a man to buy a pistol on behalf of a teenager who wouldn’t pass a background check. The teen, who had a history of mental illness, used the gun to shoot two police officers in the face at point-blank range. At least four other officers in the city have been shot with Badger guns.
Moore's bill wouldn't take away any blanket legal protections. But it would give the government a little more oversight of stores that have been found guilty of illegal behavior.
For example, the federal agency that's supposed to regulate guns, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, is only allowed to do one spot inspection per year. So if you’re an owner who gets a visit from the ATF on Oct. 26, you know you're safe from another one until at least Oct. 25 of the next year, no matter what.
Gun stores aren't required to keep an inventory of their weapons, either, which means cops are often stymied trying to track down lost or stolen guns. “My constituents are required to keep an inventory of iPads to make sure their employees don’t steal them and resell them. Why in the world wouldn’t we inventory guns?” Moore asked.
Under the bill, the ATF would be able to increase inspections and require inventories, but only after a court finds that a store has unlawfully sold a firearm, and only for a two-year probationary period. A third provision would grant the government more discretion in giving out new licenses.
Even if this narrowly focused bill were to pass, there would still be more restrictions on the government's ability to regulate guns than in almost any other sector, gun control groups say. It was a point made by Hillary Clinton at this month’s Democratic presidential debate. “Everybody else has to be accountable, but not the gun manufacturers. And we need to stand up and say: Enough of that,” Clinton railed. The frontrunner's attacks on the gun lobby have resonated with the party’s base, and her proposals would go much further than Moore's. They also carry the political benefit of spotlighting the more complicated position of her rival Bernie Sanders, who represents Vermont, where guns are many and regulations are few.
Sanders has often explained his votes against gun control by distinguishing between the regulatory needs of rural and urban America. It's a distinction reflected in federal data showing that "bad apple" gun dealers are concentrated in about a dozen cities. “No cop has ever been shot with a Bernie Sanders gun,” Moore said. “We’re not in Alaska, hunting down the moose for Sarah Palin’s famous chili. We’re talking about blight in particularly 13 cities.”
In Oakland, for example, a single gun dealer was linked to 46% of guns used in crimes, according to a federal report from 2000. In Los Angeles, nine dealers supplied 43% of crime guns. And in Philadelphia, eight dealers were the source of 50% of crime guns.
There's a reason those figures haven't been updated since 2000, even though experts believe the pattern has held. (A 2014 report by the Chicago mayor's office found four dealers supplying 20% of crime guns.) It's the same reason we know that in 2005 Badger Guns was the No. 1 seller of guns used in crimes (total:537), but we don't know which store took the title in 2006 or any year since. A piece of legislation called the Tiahrt Amendment, tucked into an appropriations bill in 2003, blocks the ATF from sharing such data with anyone outside of law enforcement—yet another layer of protection for bad apples. The National Rifle Association, which has defended Tiahrt (pronounced “TEE-hart”) on the grounds that it prevents gun dealers from being subjected to politically motivated lawsuits, has been blamed for its passage.
"It just showed up. I always assumed the NRA did it,” the ATF’s former director told the Washington Post in 2010. (The NRA did not return a request for comment for this article.)
Moore, who who plans to formally introduce her legislation early this week, expects the NRA to come down hard on it. But she’s still holding out hope for bipartisan support, and making the case that the gun dealers should be subject to the same regulations as everyone else.
“Just imagine if we had an outbreak of salmonella, and the FDA was not allowed to tell the public where the bacteria-fueled chickens were coming from,” Moore said. “We’re only going after the bad apples.”
Adam Auriemma edits the Justice section at Fusion.