When criminals need guns, they have plenty of options in a country with nearly 100,000 licensed gun stores. But drug dealers and other crooks don’t shop just anywhere. They have their favorites.
In Compton, Calif., gangsters preferred Boulevard Sales & Service, a shop police said was so felon-friendly, some salesmen offered tips on how to buy a gun despite a criminal record.
In Philadelphia, shady gun buyers sent girlfriends to a suburban pawn shop, Lou’s Loan, where the staff wouldn’t raise a fuss if a young woman came by a few times a month to purchase cheap handguns.
And on the outskirts of New Orleans, killers-to-be armed themselves at Elliot’s Gun Shop. Over the past five years, the store was the source of 2,300 weapons later linked to crime, including an astonishing 125 homicides, according to the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives.
In fact, government figures show that an extremely small number of gun shops account for a spectacularly large number of weapons used in crimes.
Officials cracking down
Stores like these have long occupied protected territory. The products they sell are legal. Congress has sheltered them from lawsuits and limited the power of regulators. It can take years for the ATF to revoke a dealer’s license.
But there are signs that scrutiny is on the rise.
Over the past three years, ATF agents have cracked down on some of the stores most notorious for selling large numbers of weapons used in street crime. In 2005 and 2006, some 220 firearms dealers had their licenses revoked — 20 more than in the previous eight years combined.
More than two dozen stores have also been hit with lawsuits, most notably by the city of New York, where Mayor Michael Bloomberg has made gun control a talking point of what could be a nascent presidential campaign.
The pickup in enforcement action has delighted gun-control groups — and dismayed Second Amendment advocates, who say law-abiding merchants are being driven out of business.
“I’ve never run into a situation where a dealer has intentionally violated the law,” said Richard Gardiner, a Virginia lawyer who represents gun dealers. If guns are being bought at these stores by criminals, “it is because they are being exploited by people who know how to beat the system.”
Gun-control advocates, though encouraged by an increase in scrutiny, believe the government is still doing too little. The number of shops disciplined by the government, they say, represents just a fraction of those that aren’t playing by the rules.
“There are bad apples out there,” said Brady Center attorney Daniel Vice. “ATF knows who they are. The manufacturers know who they are. But most of them are still operating.”
Much of what the government knows about where criminals get guns comes from the vast database the ATF uses to trace weapons found at crime scenes or confiscated by police.
The data shows that a majority of guns used by criminals are not stolen or smuggled into the country. They are bought at federally licensed gun stores, often by “straw purchasers,” people acting on behalf of others who cannot buy a weapon legally because of a criminal record.
The database also shows that most gun shops rarely, if ever, sell a weapon later linked to a crime. But a few shops account for a remarkably large number of these guns.
Stores dispute accusations
In a 2000 report, ATF officials said that nearly 40 percent of all weapons traced by the bureau originated from just 332 gun dealers nationwide. That means that less than 1 percent of the nation’s gun stores supply nearly half of all weapons traced in connection with a crime.
“When you see something like that, you either have somebody who is corrupt or have someone with bad business practices,” said Joseph Vince, a retired ATF agent and former chief of the bureau’s crime gun analysis branch.
Gun shop owners dispute that accusation. Some stores, they say, simply sell a lot of weapons. Others are victims of location: They operate in neighborhoods convenient to the highways smugglers use to run weapons from gun-friendly states to Northern cities.
So far, Congress has sided with the stores. In 2003 it blocked the ATF from revealing information from its tracing database, including the names of the shops that sold the most weapons linked to crime.
On Thursday, a key House committee refused to remove the restrictions, despite a plea from Bloomberg earlier in the week after two police officers were shot with illegally owned guns in Brooklyn.
Speaking in Washington on Tuesday, the mayor said he believed lawmakers would change their minds about protecting the stores if they could meet the parents of the most gravely wounded officer, who clung to life Thursday.
Black market a source?
The theory that some stores attract a criminal clientele because of shady business practices is the centerpiece of New York City’s legal assault.
Last year the city sued 27 gun stores in five states, claiming they sold firearms recklessly. The city’s targets included shops like Rooks Sales & Service, in Bishopville, S.C.
As gun stores go, Rooks is no superstore. The independently owned store serves a rural county with fewer than 21,000 people. The closest city, Columbia, is an hour away. New York City lies 660 miles to the north.
Yet between 1994 and 2002, at least 109 firearms sold by the store were later recovered by New York police.
One pistol was wielded by robbers at a housing project in Queens. A Tec-9 submachine gun turned up in the hands of a Staten Island teenager. A Manhattan man used a 9mm from the store to kill his wife. A Bronx man used a .25 caliber to wound his estranged girlfriend, then murder her 79-year-old grandmother.
There is no evidence that the people who committed those crimes ever visited Rooks themselves. Most are believed to have bought their weapons on the black market. But the city accused the store and others like it of fueling that underground trade by selling guns to people easily identifiable as straw purchasers.
To build its case, New York sent private investigators into dozens of stores, where they posed as the classic straw-purchase team: a man who picks out and pays for the weapon, and a woman who steps in to undergo the required criminal record check.
To their credit, many shopkeepers turned the couple away. Bloomberg called those who made the sale “rogue dealers.”
That kind of talk infuriates Earl Driggers, one of the merchants sued by the city. Between 1994 and 2001, his family-owned chain of pawn shops in Georgia sold 48 guns later linked to crimes in New York, including a Bronx killing.
Driggers said no one wants guns to fall into the wrong hands. But he said he does everything a responsible gun salesman should when suspicious characters visit his shop: Sometimes he throws them out. Sometimes he calls ATF.
One time, he called in a tip that led to a good-sized bust. A customer who had bought dozens of inexpensive handguns was stopped by police, and wound up implicating accomplices in a ring that had smuggled as many as 200 guns to New York.
“I suspect that there are some people that New York City legitimately needed to go after, but I’m not one of them,” Driggers said.
Driggers said he fired the clerk who fell for New York City’s sting. He also joined a dozen other owners, including Rooks Sales, who settled the lawsuit.
Countersuits from defiant store owners
Other store owners have been more defiant. Some of the shops and their supporters have countersued, claiming they were libeled by New York officials who had no authority to enforce gun laws in other states. Virginia lawmakers, outraged at the incursion, passed legislation banning similar stings.
ATF officials weren’t pleased either, and asked New York to stop sending private investigators into gun stores.
But the ATF has been busy too, especially since 2003, when oversight of its firearms operation was transferred from the Treasury Department to the more powerful Justice Department.
In the past three years, 105 licensed gun dealers have been indicted on criminal charges because of ATF investigations — twice as many as between 2000 and 2002.
Agents raided Boulevard Sales & Service in March after conducting a sting of their own. Two clerks were charged with selling ammunition to felons who were secretly working with Los Angeles authorities.
Lou’s Loan in Upper Darby, Pa., had its license revoked last summer. And in mid-May, ATF agents shuttered Elliot’s Gun Shop. Its owner and two employees were charged with identity theft and illegal sales.
'The worst nightmare'
Last year, government statistics indicated that Elliot’s was the No. 3 supplier of crime guns in the country. The No. 2 store, Trader Sports of San Leandro, Calif., lost its license last year.
Taking those disciplinary actions has not been easy.
By congressional mandate, agents are now generally allowed to inspect licensed dealers only once a year. To revoke a dealer’s license, investigators must prove in court that a dealer willfully violated gun laws — a process that can take years.
Still, the extra scrutiny appears to be having an effect.
At Hot Shots Jewelry & Pawn in Marietta, Ga., customers are now questioned bluntly to make sure they aren’t buying a weapon on behalf of someone else, said owner Melissa Paulette. Her store was among those that settled with New York.
“We don’t want any more trouble,” she said. “This has been the worst nightmare.”