Virginia gun dealers: Small number supply most guns tied to crimes

By David S. Fallis
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, October 25, 2010; 4:28 PM

A man walked into Roanoke Firearms one summer day in 2004 to buy a Glock 17 handgun with a laser sight and high-capacity magazine. Three nights later, he unleashed a jackhammer of gunfire - 33 rounds - into a crowded parking lot up the road, killing one and wounding two.

At Bob's Gun Shop in Norfolk, a woman accompanied by an 18-year-old with a long rap sheet bought a "Baby 9" for protection in November 2006. Seven weeks later, the teen stole a truck and used the 9mm pistol to execute a man who intervened.

Outside an Ace Hardware in Lynchburg, a teen paid a man $70 to buy a Hi-Point handgun for him in April 2008. Seven days later, the teen's gang stormed a gas mart, shot the clerk in the head and fled with wads of bloody cash.

These three guns tell part of the hidden story of how firearms move from gun dealers to crime scenes across Virginia.

A year-long Washington Post investigation broke through the congressionally imposed secrecy surrounding federal gun tracing and, for the first time, has identified the dealers that sell the majority of "crime guns" in Virginia. There have been thousands of firearms dealers licensed in the state since 1998, but 60 percent of the 6,800 guns sold in Virginia in that time and later seized by police can be traced to just 40 dealers. The merchants include mom-and-pop gun shops, inner-city pawn dealers and suburban sporting-goods outlets.

The data highlight long-standing questions about the role of gun sellers in fueling crime. Do these dealers bear any responsibility for how their guns are used? Is law enforcement sufficiently focused on whether they are doing enough to prevent "straw purchases" for criminals?

Academic experts and law enforcement officials argue that gun traces can be used to help identify dealers that, knowingly or not, are selling guns to traffickers. Gun rights activists counter that the tracing unfairly tarnishes dealers and merely reflects the volume of weapons sold. But the Virginia records reinforce studies by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives and others that show volume is only part of the equation. The 40 dealers account for about 30 percent of the state's gun sales, but their guns make up almost two-thirds of those seized and reported to State Police.

"We are aware of the dealers that have higher numbers of traces," Special Agent Mike Campbell of the ATF's Washington Field Division said of The Post's findings. "It is one of the factors that causes us to take a closer look. . . . If they are following the law and our inspections find their paperwork is in order, that's a lot of traces, but there's not a whole lot we can do."

Gun dealers say they work hard to prevent illegal sales. "It's not to our advantage to sell guns in a mercenary way," said Mitchell Dunbar, who operates two Superior Pawn shops, in Virginia Beach and Hampton, that are among the leading sources of traced firearms. "We drive the same streets."

Politically sensitive

Gun tracing is such a politically sensitive issue that Congress in 2003 banned the release of any federal data connecting dealers to guns seized in crimes. Lawmakers also prohibited the use of such tracing information in lawsuits against dealers. Current and former federal agents say that targeting suspect dealers is time-consuming and politically sensitive and that cases are difficult to prove.

"I can tell you that most of the gun dealers are not bad gun dealers - they help us get the traffickers," James Cavanaugh, a now-retired ATF special agent, told a group of police chiefs at a crime summit last year. "But to really put this in perspective, a bad gun dealer is like a bad cop. He can really hurt us because he can really pump the guns out."

The Post identified the Virginia dealers by using public information requests to obtain copies of a little-known state database of seized firearms. The Post also reviewed ATF regulatory files, mined trafficking cases, surveyed gun sales, visited shops and interviewed dealers and criminals caught with their guns. The newspaper obtained tracing data from local police to help fill gaps in state records.

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