Virginia gun store D & R Arms: Fastest from counter to crime

By David S. Fallis
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, October 25, 2010; 4:31 PM

D & R Arms, a no-frills shop tucked into a strip mall in Portsmouth, is one of more than 200 gun dealers in the Hampton Roads area and more than 1,600 active in Virginia. But no other dealer listed in state records has had so many guns move so quickly from counter to crime scene in recent years.

Such a pattern is a red flag for law enforcement officials looking for potential gun trafficking. That's because the speed with which a new gun becomes police evidence can indicate criminal intent by the buyer at the time of the sale.

Since 2004, almost 70 percent of the guns traced back to the store were seized within a year, some within days or weeks, according to state records. The state rate is about 30 percent for the same time period.

A "time to crime" of three years or less for a gun is a warning sign, according to researchers working with the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives. Researchers who have studied long-term tracing trends say guns remain in circulation for decades, but newer weapons turn up disproportionately in crimes.

The big picture, according to interviews and records, is one of a store transformed in recent years for reasons unknown. During its first decade, the store rarely sold guns that turned up at crime scenes. But the number of guns sold there has tripled since 2004, and the number traced from crime scenes has grown sevenfold. ATF inspectors, after finding virtually no problems in 2001, have warned the operators three times since then that their license is in jeopardy. In recent years, the shop has sold guns to interstate traffickers in "straw purchases" who, when caught, told the ATF they were so obvious that store employees must have suspected something.

" 'Time to crime' in and of itself is not something we can revoke a dealer on. It's certainly something we look at," said Special Agent Mike Campbell of the ATF's Washington Field Division. "We've inspected them, and for the most part they are following the rules and regulations. We've met with them and instructed them on what they need to correct."

The 2003 congressional blackout on federal gun-trace information has shielded D & R Arms from public scrutiny. The Post uncovered the surge in crime guns from the shop by analyzing a little-known database of seized weapons maintained by the Virginia State Police. By piecing together thousands of corresponding police and court records, the newspaper documented the details of the crimes.

By the end of last year, officers had recovered and traced more than 250 guns sold by D & R Arms, often in drug- and weapons-related crimes in Portsmouth: An AK-47 and a shotgun from a cocaine dealer. A Hi-Point carbine dropped in a robbery by a juvenile who shot his victim in a struggle over the gun.

Convicts and law enforcement officials say there is a relentless criminal demand for guns. New weapons are at a premium.

"That's the basic reason people tend to purchase firearms from those able to go to the store for them," Jonathan S. Moore, now in federal prison in Ohio for drug trafficking after a string of arrests involving guns from D & R and other Virginia stores, wrote in response to a reporter's questions. "Even though you may pay a markup . . . the extra money spent somewhat insures you from purchasing broken and 'body ridden' firearms."

"Body ridden" means used to kill or wound.

The store, on Tyre Neck Road, is unimposing. Inside, gun gear hangs on one wall, a worn cargo-style couch sits by the counter and a dirty crockpot rests on a chair. Placards in the window say "I'm the NRA."

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