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."
In a brief interview, Dana Taylor, 44 - who runs the store with her husband, Richard, 46, the shop's owner - blamed the number of traces on sales volume and crime in Portsmouth. Records show the store has sold more than 8,900 guns since 1993.
"I get a lot of nice people through here," she said. "I think a lot of them get burglarized."
Taylor said they screen for straw buyers as best as they can. "If somebody pays you to come in here and buy a gun from me, how . . . would I know?" she said, adding, "I'm not a swami. I'm not a mind reader."
The federally required background check, she said, determines whether the store completes a sale for a gun.
"Anybody who leaves here with a firearm, they all have one thing in common," Taylor said. "They are approved" by authorities to buy the gun. "We don't pick and choose who to sell to."
What people do with the guns once they leave is their own business, she said.
"You have to talk to the people who are committing the crimes," she said. "I'm not in control of their actions."
Dominic Andre Wyche was arrested on drug-related charges while in the presence of guns from D & R in both 2005 and 2007, records show. A subsequent arrest landed him in prison for distributing cocaine. "They make me feel as if they want my business, unlike other gun stores in the area who just want my money," Wyche wrote of why he patronized D & R.
Another customer, Samuel Mason III, brandished a .45-caliber Taurus from D & R Arms in 2006 when he jumped onto a Portsmouth fast-food counter, pointed the gun at employees and demanded cash. Mason had bought the gun at D & R six months before.
When he bought the Taurus, Mason had only misdemeanors on his record and could legally purchase a gun. He told The Post that he got it for protection but that a desire for money led to the robbery, which landed him in prison.
In 1993, Richard Taylor received his ATF license to sell guns as D & R Arms. Initially, the business shared space with a hair salon at a shopping plaza developed by his family. Taylor sold fewer than 100 guns in the first few years. But business picked up, and the shop soon expanded into its own space.
Taylor briefly landed on the other side of the law in 1999 when a man filed a misdemeanor complaint that Taylor threatened to kill him. He "shot . . . a round at me, just missing me," the victim claimed in court. Taylor completed a firearms safety course, and charges were dismissed.
ATF inspectors documented no problems in D & R's first 10 years. But a 2004 inspection uncovered numerous violations. The details are redacted from ATF records, but the problems were severe enough that the ATF held a "warning conference" with Taylor and his wife. Inspectors told them that if problems persisted, they would revoke the license. D & R's response is unknown.
Inspectors wrote that Dana Taylor told them the shop took steps "to avoid" a city ordinance that at the time required handgun buyers in Portsmouth to be fingerprinted and photographed by police, in addition to the state-run background check.
D & R Arms, inspectors noted, transferred "many handguns" up the road to dealers in Isle of Wight County. The shops handled the sales for the Taylors for a $25 fee. After a 2004 change in state law rendered the local ordinance moot, sales of handguns at D & R Arms climbed sharply, state records show, and traces climbed to new highs.
About the same time, two felons from New York were recruiting people with clean records to buy handguns and assault rifles from D & R Arms and a handful of other Hampton Roads merchants. The buyers, including the elderly and indigent, were paid in crack or cash. Trafficked guns were sometimes resold the next day in New York City. When law enforcement busted up the ring in 2005, traffickers had secured at least 50 guns, 15 of them from D & R.
The traffickers later told investigators that they were in and out of D & R Arms with so many different people that the sales staff must have suspected they were making straw purchases. Guns from the shop, meanwhile, continued to turn up in serious crimes:
A .40-caliber Taurus sold by the store in 2006 was linked to the wounding of a Portsmouth police officer four months later.
A .38-caliber handgun sold by D & R Arms in 2005 was reported stolen on April 24, 2008, and used the next day to kill a Portsmouth pizza deliveryman. When police searched the residence of one of the killers, they found an AK-47, also sold by D & R.
When Portsmouth officers rolled up on a fight involving three men in January 2008, they found each armed with a D & R handgun bought the previous year - a 9mm Taurus, a 9mm Jimenez and a .380 Cobra.
The Taylors suffered a setback in December 2008 when an accidental fire reduced their shop to rubble. The couple soon reopened in a building across the parking lot. Since then, D & R has sold more than 1,400 guns.