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.

Scattered across the state, the 40 dealers linked to the most crime guns have sold more than 800,000 new and used guns since 1998. Four of the 40 are in Northern Virginia, but one of those is now closed.

Local police have swept up guns from the top 40 in a sprawl of investigations: 40 homicide cases, 63 robberies, 96 suicides or attempts, 173 brandishings, 301 shootings with or without injuries, 655 drug probes and 1,043 weapons-related violations.

ATF inspectors have found regulatory violations at most of the 40 dealers dating to the early 1990s. Infractions ranged from minor paperwork errors to sales to people prohibited by law from buying guns. All but eight merchants have been warned by the government - 73 times combined - that continued violations jeopardized their gun licenses. Four stores have had their licenses revoked, but all are still able to legally sell guns today at the same locations after transferring licenses, re-applying or re-licensing under new operators.

Because of the secrecy Congress imposed, the details of what the ATF uncovered when inspecting dealers are generally redacted from the thousands of pages disclosed to The Post under the Freedom of Information Act. The lack of transparency has fueled complaints from gun-control groups that the ATF is reluctant to crack down on troubled dealers.

Revocations of licenses are infrequent, averaging 110 a year across the nation out of about 60,000 licensed dealers. Federal prosecutions of dealers are even rarer, averaging about 15 a year nationally, including three over the past nine years in Virginia, records show.

When the ATF does step up enforcement, it can lead to political pressure on the agency to ease off. For example, the ATF found that about 400 guns sold by licensed dealers at gun shows in the Richmond area were seized in criminal investigations between 2002 and 2005.

One of them was an AK-47 sold to a straw buyer at a 2004 show in the Richmond area. The seller was Dark Sun Surplus, one of the top 40 dealers in The Post's study. The gun was used nine days later by a drug dealer settling a debt. He shot up a car on a Richmond street, killing one man and injuring two others.

When ATF agents tried to track buyers they suspected of straw purchases at Richmond-area gun shows, the operators complained to the National Rifle Association. Top ATF officials were called before Congress and asked to explain themselves.

"What we did worked," said Mike Bouchard, a former ATF assistant director for field operations. "But we got our butts kicked for doing it. They were baseless allegations. But you can see the impact of the gun lobby in Virginia, which has one of the biggest problems with crime guns."

New York City sues

One of the toughest public actions against Virginia gun dealers came from outside the state.

Five of these 40 Virginia merchants were sued in civil court in 2006 by New York City Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg, who investigated them after 137 guns they sold were linked to crimes in New York. The suits included evidence from videotaped stings to see if merchants sold guns to simulated straw buyers. In a settlement, 21 dealers up and down the Interstate 95 corridor agreed to accept court monitoring of their business practices.

One of the top 40 was forced out of business by state authorities, not federal, over paperwork violations of state law.

Richard Norad, who sold thousands of guns a year as R and B Guns out of his Hampton home in the 1990s, pleaded guilty in 2001 to a felony for failing to obtain the required second piece of identification from a gun buyer. At least 1,400 of Norad's guns have been traced. In 2007, a man armed with one killed a New York City police officer, according to news reports.

Shawn Pettaway, a convicted trafficker now in prison in New York, was part of a ring that targeted Hampton Roads dealers, including R and B, in a scheme that police said ran more than 100 guns to the Bronx in the early 2000s. He told The Post he would scope out the gun shops and recruit female buyers so he could circumvent the state's one-a-month limit on handgun purchases.

Norad did not respond to requests for comment.

Overall, more than half of the 40 Virginia dealers were the source of weapons purchased by suspected traffickers moving guns within and outside the state, federal prosecutions show. Combined, the dealers have sold almost 400 guns to accused traffickers since 1993. Gun runners in some cases accompanied straw buyers to stores and traded cash or drugs for guns in the parking lots. One of those straw purchasers obtained a 9mm handgun at Superior Pawn in Hampton in 2005. Eleven days later, it was dropped by a gunman in a shootout with police in Jamaica.

The fact that a store sold guns later used in crimes does not necessarily mean the dealer did anything wrong or illegal. Catching dealers that break the law is not as simple as adding up traces, experts caution. The type and numbers of guns sold, a store's location, its clientele, how it screens buyers, and even police tracing practices all affect the numbers.

"Some dealers are just bad-guy magnets," said Garen Wintemute, who heads up the Violence Prevention Research Program at the University of California at Davis and studies tracing. "They are more likely to sell inexpensive handguns, to be pawnbrokers, to be located in urban areas, and to be patronized by would-be gun buyers who . . . are prohibited from owning guns."

Because federal law requires that all guns be purchased from a federally licensed dealer, the ATF looks to the 60,000 regulated merchants as the front-line defense against gun trafficking. Law enforcement officials agree that the vast majority of dealers strive to keep their guns away from criminals.

"If this was a drugstore and we had narcotic drugs behind the counter, we would want to make sure they are getting into the right hands," said Robert Marcus, whose Norfolk gun shop is one of the larger sources of guns traced in Virginia. But, Marcus noted, once guns leave his shop, "we have no control over the product. We can't go home with it."

That is why dealers often say that holding them accountable if a gun they legally sold is used in a crime is as absurd as blaming a car dealer for traffic crashes. Licensed dealers say buyers must pass background checks and often resell guns or lose them to thieves.

"Do I feel responsible for someone using a gun in a crime? Honestly, I don't," said Mark Bailey, a gun merchant from Tazewell, Va., who sells at Richmond gun shows and is one of the top 40 Virginia dealers. "If somebody goes down to Lowe's and buys a lead pipe and goes out here and beats somebody to death . . . nobody in Lowe's feels responsible for that."

Ron Hess has sold guns for decades from his store in Norfolk, moving about 900 a year. The shop is also one of the top 40. In 2008, police traced at least 72 firearms back to his counters.

Hess said suspicious customers get the boot. Like many dealers, he complained that not all traced guns are "crime guns," the term used by the ATF. Hess questioned why a gun stolen from a customer, then found and traced, is a crime gun. "That really [ticks] me off," Hess said. "It's a 'lost, stolen' gun."

The ATF defines crime gun as one used or suspected to have been used in a crime or illegally possessed. Even "found" guns are likely crime guns, said Charles Houser, who runs the ATF's National Tracing Center in West Virginia, because lawful owners don't abandon guns. "A reasonable person would argue that a crime probably has been committed," he said. "We just don't know which one yet."

The minimum or more

About once a day, the staff at Bob's Gun Shop in downtown Norfolk refuses to sell a firearm because something isn't right. "They are constantly testing and probing and pushing," Marcus said of criminals trying to secure guns. "Our license is too valuable to risk it over one sale."

Still, this 65-year-old shop is one of the leading sources of crime guns in Virginia, with Norfolk police alone recovering 88 of its guns in 2008. Marcus said he gets about one trace request a day. But he said the store's trace numbers are probably fed by Norfolk's demographics and the fact that it has sold more than 32,000 guns since 1998. His staff is vigilant, he said, in looking for telltale signs of a straw purchase, such as one person asking all the questions but another person filling out the paperwork. He has long tracked inventory by computer and surveils the shop with video.

Those steps exemplify the approach the ATF encourages. The agency's strategy has been to partner with dealers and the National Shooting Sports Foundation in the "Don't Lie for the Other Guy" campaign to help identify straw-purchase attempts. But the ATF's reach is limited. It can't force dealers to screen customers beyond the background check, to inventory stock so guns do not go missing, or to install security measures to thwart burglaries.

"The dealers have a choice: they can do the bare minimum, or they can do more," said Campbell, the ATF agent.

Some dealers say they curb or limit the sales of inexpensive handguns, such as those made by Hi-Point Firearms. ATF officials say that years of tracing has shown that low-priced handguns have greater appeal to violent criminals and gun traffickers.

No other dealer in state records is listed as the source of as many traced Hi-Point pistols as Sonny's, a Portsmouth pawnshop down the street from a neighborhood where a fast-growing drug gang made headlines last year.

Sonny's has sold more than 5,000 guns in the past 12 years. Of those, at least 230 were later traced - more than 140 of them Hi-Points.

The ATF moved to revoke the shop's license in 2004, citing chronic violations. As the process played out, different operators secured a new ATF license, keeping the doors open and changing the name on the license from Sonny's Coins and Hobbies to Sonny's Pawn Shop. Gun traces, including ones involving Hi-Point handguns, have continued. The new operators of Sonny's declined to be interviewed, saying that tracing is "confidential."

Few questions asked

More than 1,200 guns recovered by police have been traced to businesses run by Norman Gladden in the Hampton Roads area. One of the first shops he opened was A & P Arms, housed in a square cinder-block building in Virginia Beach. In 2006, ATF inspectors found that guns were missing and records were in disarray. An inspection the year before at Gladden's shop in Hampton also uncovered problems, including 13 "straw purchasers, and suspicious purchasers," records show. The ATF warned Gladden that his licenses were in jeopardy.

Gladden told the ATF during the inspection in Virginia Beach that he "questioned the impact that straw purchases have on crime," inspectors wrote, noting that he worried about angering legitimate customers.

But straw buyers frequented his counters, court records show, securing 15 guns from 2004 to 2007 that led to trafficking prosecutions.

One of those traffickers, Trevor Charles Fisher, was convicted in a drugs-for-guns scheme that included two straw purchases at A & P. The dealer was chosen "due to the fact the guns were dirt cheap and there were very little questions asked," Fisher, now in a New York prison, wrote in a letter.

One of Gladden's own employees was peddling A & P guns on the side. The employee sold, traded or gave away 59 guns worth $70,000. Gladden discovered and reported the theft to the ATF in 2007. When ATF inspectors returned to the Virginia Beach shop to re-inspect, they documented 240 missing guns and repeat violations. They revoked his store's license.

Gladden simply transferred another license he held from his residence on the Eastern Shore to the Virginia Beach storefront, records show. Since then, the shop has sold thousands of guns. In response to questions, an attorney for Gladden said The Post's information contained "factual inaccuracies, half-truths, dated information, unsubstantiated allegations by convicted felons and hearsay."

Reached by phone, Gladden declined to be interviewed. "History has told us that there is no good that comes out of us giving out information," he said.

Contributing to this report were staff writers James V. Grimaldi and Sari Horwitz, staff video journalist Ben de la Cruz, staff researcher Julie Tate and former staff researcher Meg Smith.

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