This story was produced in partnership with The Trace, with additional reporting by Brian Freskos. 

Over the last two decades, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives let some of the Midwest’s most notorious gun sellers off the hook for serious violations of federal law, including selling to straw purchasers, transferring guns without background checks and doctoring sales records.

The Trace, a nonprofit newsroom, and USA TODAY obtained ATF inspection records for 13 gun dealers singled out by the city of Chicago as suppliers of a disproportionate number of guns used in city crimes. The records show the agency found more than 120 violations of the federal Gun Control Act of 1968 at these stores. Only one store passed its inspection with no violations.

In 2017, on the heels of a record-breaking surge in homicides in Chicago, then-Mayor Rahm Emanuel published a sweeping Gun Trace Report, which identified the sellers of thousands of guns recovered by Chicago police between 2013 and 2016. It showed nearly 1 in 4 guns picked up by city police came from just 10 stores located across Illinois and northern Indiana. The top three stores together accounted for some 2,000 crime guns. 

The Trace and USA TODAY requested inspection documents for the gun dealers named in this report. They reveal the ATF routinely issued softer penalties than warranted under agency guidelines when it discovered violations at these stores — in step with a pattern of conciliatory inspections the media organizations first uncovered last year.

Chicago crime gun sellers got off easy years before with the ATF

ATF investigation:Gun dealers can count on the agency to back off; sometimes firearms flow to criminals

That investigation found that between 2015 and 2017, the ATF regularly downgraded penalties for lawbreaking retailers across the U.S. The review of more than 2,000 gun dealers showed that many dealers had brazenly flouted federal laws, selling weapons to convicted felons and domestic abusers, lying to inspectors and falsifying ledgers to hide their misconduct. When the ATF discovered these violations, it often issued warnings, sometimes repeatedly, and allowed stores to stay open.