By Karl Vick
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, April 19, 2009
PHOENIX -- It seemed a fortuitous alignment of justice and politics, George Iknadosian's trial beginning just as President Obama called for new attention to the flow of weapons from the United States to the drug cartels inside Mexico. The Phoenix gun dealer stood charged with selling hundreds of AK-47 assault rifles and pistols, and the case appeared airtight: The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives had secret recordings, confessed confederates and a list of weapons traced from Mexican shootouts to X-Caliber Guns, Iknadosian's shop here on Cave Creek Road.
But on March 18, before the prosecution had rested, a Maricopa County Superior Court judge ordered the defendant freed. And what seemed a showcase for Washington's vigorous new campaign against gun trafficking instead became a reminder of the bedrock reality challenging the effort: This is gun country.
"If you get the money, we'll sell it to you," said Jacob Allerd, 19, behind a table laden with assault rifles at a gun show in Pinetop, Ariz., two weeks later. "It's not hard to find assault rifles, they're just expensive. The cartels are offering a pretty penny. Or drugs."
Drugs being what is smuggled north across the border. Guns are smuggled south.
"It's the whole cycle," Allerd said, "like the cycle of life.''
"But not life," said his sister, Garet, 14. "Death."
Mexican and U.S. officials estimate that more than 100,000 firearms are smuggled south in a year, and 90 percent of those seized from narcotics traffickers and submitted to the United States for tracing have come from this country. The death toll on the border is even more stark: 10,000 in three years.
But the effort to stop arms trafficking focuses on the same landscape that defined the Wild West. And the abiding appreciation for firearms that informs the Second Amendment runs especially deep in Arizona and Texas, which span 80 percent of the 2,000-mile border.
Iknadosian told federal investigators he moved to Phoenix to escape the strict gun laws in California, where the sale of assault rifles is illegal. Investigators built a case that he knowingly sold more than 700 firearms, including 500 AK-47 semiautomatic rifles, to individuals he often knew were "straw buyers" for middlemen who delivered the guns to Mexico.
Rifles from X-Caliber were found at a gunfight that killed eight Mexican police officers, and a pistol from the store was recovered from a cartel boss. Nonetheless, Judge Robert L. Gottsfield ruled that prosecutors failed to prove under state law that "any prohibited possessor ended up with the firearms." Prosecutors, who are appealing, expressed dismay.
"They're talking about doubling the amount of ATF attention, but there remains a bewildering set of sometimes competing rules and regulations that surround weapons," said Arizona Attorney General Terry Goddard (D), adding that his office took the case because the local U.S. attorney was swamped with immigration cases.
Law enforcement resources on the border are stretched thin. There are 200 ATF agents assigned to the area, which has 7,000 retailers licensed to sell firearms. The ATF's senior official in Arizona said U.S. authorities especially need to train and vet more counterparts in Mexico to help build major investigations. Only a few hundred such contacts are trusted now.
Even if all those changes are made, however, U.S. laws will continue to reflect the sensibilities on exhibit at the Firing Pin Gun Show, where "Arming the West" was for sale in paperback. The Allerd family explained how as "private collectors," they can sell guns without filling out federal forms or running the criminal background checks required of licensed dealers.
"No paperwork, nothing," said Jacob Allerd. "Just an Arizona license. And proof you're over 21."
And neither U.S. nor Arizona law limit the number of guns one can buy, even from dealers.
"Fifteen?" Allerd said. "We can get it for you. Most people just want two or three at the most."
"Depends on the person," said his twin brother, Jordan, by the shotguns. "My dad's big on trust."
"And some people don't care," Jacob said. "Some people will sell you as much as you want."
Buyers for cartels used to leave Arizona gun shows with "15 AK-47s slung over their shoulder," said Phoenix ATF agent Thomas Mangan. That brazenness was inhibited by a flurry of arrests, Mangan said, but what gun-control advocates call "the gun show loophole" remains firmly in the matrix of laws that reflect both the libertarian traditions of the West and the anxious vigilance of firearms enthusiasts toward their Second Amendment rights.
"So you think this whole thing is just a ploy to shut the gun business down again?" asked Rick Cofone, behind the hunting counter at Sportsman's Warehouse in north Phoenix. He looked across shelves emptied of handgun ammunition by the panicked buying that has marked firearms retailing since Obama's election. A community alarmed by rumors that Democrats will tighten gun laws was not reassured by the recent assignment of 100 additional ATF agents to the border to hunt smugglers.
"Why is this happening now?" asked David Morse, who organized the Pinetop show. It was three years ago that a Hispanic man asked to buy 20 Kalashnikovs from Morse. And it was last year that a man who spoke English tried to purchase a Colt .38 Super for the man beside him, who spoke only Spanish. The pistol is sometimes called a "weapon of choice" for drug bosses.
"During the whole Bush administration I knew this was happening, but I didn't hear anything about it," Morse said. "Now, all of a sudden in the last 60 days, that's all we hear."
But Bill Newell, who oversees the 19 ATF agents in Phoenix, said the change is more than welcome. "For someone who's worked the border for 20 years, it's been a long time coming," he said.
Culture matters, Newell said. Gun trafficking long remained a low priority for much the same reason Mexico turned a blind eye to the smuggling of people: In Mexico, the popular image of the "coyote," or smuggler, is of a good Samaritan. And the U.S. Constitution guarantees the right to bear arms.
"What we have is a kind of cultural icon -- guns on one side, workers sending remittances home on the other," said Goddard, the attorney general. "Within our own contexts we don't see a problem."
Staff writer Spencer S. Hsu contributed to this report.