Correction to This Article
This article misspells the name of an agent of the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives. He is Joe Bisbee, not Joe Brisbee.

Fighting Gun Traffickers Involves Lots of Legwork, a Little Luck

By Paul Duggan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, March 17, 2008

For police and federal agents trying to keep guns out of the hands of criminals in the District, building a case against a firearms trafficker can mean months of work. Or it can come together quickly -- as fast as a speeding motorcycle.

Virginia State Trooper Eric Linkous was looking for speeders on Interstate 66 in Fauquier County on Aug. 10 when Michael W. Lewis II blew past him on a Suzuki Katana going 99 mph. By the time Linkous caught up with the Suzuki, Lewis, 30, of Front Royal, Va., had abandoned his bike and fled on foot, leaving behind a black satchel.

In the bag were five stolen pistols, four of them taken from a Manassas gun store three nights earlier in a burglary that netted 19 firearms. Lewis, arrested within days of the chase, was soon linked to three other burglaries and nearly 70 stolen guns -- most of them still missing. Authorities said they think the guns were sold to criminals, mainly in the District.

Firearms traffickers such as Lewis profit in an underground economy that has bustled for decades in the District, regardless of the city's long-debated prohibition on handgun ownership, one of the toughest gun-control laws in the nation.

Tomorrow, the U.S. Supreme Court will hear arguments on the constitutionality of the 32-year-old handgun ban in a case that could lead to a landmark ruling on the Second Amendment. Within blocks of the stately, marble-columned court building, and in many parts of the city, the market for illegal guns will continue to thrive -- and the fight against it, the war in the trenches, will go on.

The thefts committed over a six-month period by Lewis, who pleaded guilty to firearms-trafficking charges last month, were commonplace crimes. Investigators said many of the countless illegal guns in Washington neighborhoods were stolen in commercial and residential burglaries outside the city.

Traffickers also routinely pay people with clean backgrounds, known as straw purchasers, to buy firearms for them at gun stores in Maryland, Virginia and elsewhere.

The business is lucrative. A cheap pistol (a "Saturday night special") with a retail value of $100 might fetch better than twice that price on the streets, and the markup on high-quality handguns can be even greater. In many cases, law enforcement officials said, drug dealers pay for guns with cocaine.

"You're talking about supply and demand," said Edgar A. Domenech, head of the Washington field office of the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives.

"And it's never-ending," he said.

Lewis understood that market, according to authorities. From February to July last year, he stole nearly 50 guns in burglaries at two pawn shops and a sporting goods store in Virginia's Augusta, Warren and Rappahannock counties, investigators said. Then he stole 19 guns in the Aug. 7 break-in at Dominion Arms in Prince William County, they said.

It didn't take long for the hot weapons to reach the streets.

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