By Sari Horwitz and James V. Grimaldi
Washington Post Staff Writers
Monday, December 13, 2010; 12:33 PM
A decade ago, politicians and the press routinely reported on gun stores across the nation that had the most traces for firearms recovered by police. In 2003, under pressure from the gun lobby, Congress passed a law that hid from public view the government database that contained the gun tracing information.
The Washington Post has obtained the names of the gun dealers nationwide with the most traces over the past four years. In addition, The Post has uncovered the names of the dealers, all from border states, with the most traces from guns recovered in Mexico over the past two years.
A high number of guns traced to a store does not necessarily signal wrongdoing. The number of traces a store generates is shaped by many factors, including volume, the type of guns sold, geography and clientele.
Topping the overall list with about 2,390 traces is Vance Outdoors in Columbus, Ohio. Owner Todd Vance said his that grandfather started the business on Cleveland Avenue in 1938 and that the store is a top source for shooters, hunters, anglers and boaters in central Ohio.
"We are one of the higher-volume gun dealers," he said. "We sell thousands of guns."
Vance said that he and his employees are "very vigilant" about straw purchases, in which someone buys for a person prohibited from owning a gun, and that they turn down 10 to 20 suspicious sales a week. He said the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives conducts a month-long inspection annually.
"We're as honest as the day is long," Vance said. "We want to stay in this business. We try to do everything humanly possible on our end to ensure sales are legitimate."
No. 2 on the list is Hyatt Coin & Gun in Charlotte, with about 2,055 traces. Larry Hyatt's father opened the store in 1959. Hyatt's 81-year-old mother runs the cash register, and his wife and son work in the 20,000-square-foot store.
"We're not going to let anything go wrong here," said Hyatt, 63. "No one here is going to disobey the law. Nobody buys a gun from this store without being checked out."
Hyatt said the high number of traces is a public relations problem - "It just doesn't sound good" - but he attributed it to large volume and longevity.
"We're one of the oldest gun stores and sell the most guns in the Southeast," he said. "We've sold nearly a million guns. We have a 6,000-gun inventory and sell 50 guns a day. People buy here from 100 miles away because I have four gunsmiths to repair guns."
Most times, Hyatt said, the guns recovered in crimes don't come directly from his store. Once firearms leave his store, he said, they can be stolen or sold to another person on the street or at a gun show, and often they are resold several times. Guns are also inherited when a firearms owner dies.
"Every gun you sell, you have to worry," Hyatt said. "It's a dangerous product. We certainly don't want our guns in the wrong hands. But 99 percent of them are used properly: hunting, self-defense, target shooting, collecting and law enforcement."
ATF inspected Hyatt's store this summer.
"They gave us a grueling audit," he said. "They checked every gun, every serial number, every form to make sure we were doing it properly. We want to be inspected, and we want you to know we're doing it right."
Don's Guns and Galleries in Indianapolis has the third-highest number of gun traces, about 1,910 firearms. Owner Don Davis, 77, said he is not surprised that a large number of guns are traced back to his 37-year-old store.
"I sell a couple thousand guns a year," Davis said. "I sell guns to rich people and to poor. Poor people need protection, too. There's no gun that leaves Don's Guns that hasn't been okayed by background checks."
Don's has been on this list before. Between 1996 and 2000, before gun tracing data were hidden from the public, Don's was No. 2 in the country, according to a list ranking gun stores by traces compiled in 2004 by the now-defunct Americans for Gun Safety Foundation. Over that period, 2,294 guns were traced to Don's.
In October 2004, Don's sold six handguns to a Chicago gang member and his straw buyer while both were in the store. The gang member selected five Hi-Point pistols and an AK-47-type rifle, but the straw buyer filled out the paperwork and paid for the guns in cash, according to court records.
Four of the handguns were later recovered by Chicago police. The straw purchaser was sentenced to three months in prison and three years' supervised release, and the gang member received two years in prison.
Davis said he and his employees have blocked many suspicious sales.
"There's no way we can tell if you're buying a gun for someone else," he said. "There is nothing to keep a gun out of the hands of a felon. He can't buy one here, but he can go to a gun show and buy it or buy it from someone else. It's stupid."
In the front yard of his home, Davis has placed an eight-foot-wide ornamental rock with the Second Amendment engraved on it. Also inscribed on the lighted rock is an eagle, the U.S. flag and one of his favorite sayings: "It's better to own a gun and not need it than to need a gun and not own it."
Placing fourth with about 1,865 traces is Guns & Ammo of Memphis, a store in business for 25 years and with sales of 10,000 guns a year, owner Burt Simonton said.
"Memphis has one of the highest crime rates in the nation," he said. "We're the largest dealer in the state. So guess where all the traces go back to."
When the Memphis Commercial Appeal published the 2004 list, Guns & Ammo appeared at No. 25. A reader, Don Nolan Jr. of Hernando, Miss., wrote a letter to the newspaper, saying, "Several times I have seen Guns & Ammo employees refuse to sell to buyers . . . who even suggested the store knowingly break the law."
Ranking fifth is Arrowhead Pawn & Gun Shop, in a strip mall in Jonesboro, Ga., with about 1,720 traces. The manager of the store said Arrowhead's owner, Samuel Schwartz, was in the Caribbean and could not be reached.
Arrowhead was the top out-of-state source of weapons seized by the police last year in New York City, according to a story in the New York Daily News.
Arrowhead appeared at No. 20 on the 2004 list.
Badger Guns in Milwaukee is sixth, with about 1,700 traces. On the 2004 list, the store, then known as Badger Outdoors, ranked No. 3 with 1,906 traces.
In 2006, ATF investigators recommended revoking the license of Badger Outdoors, according to an investigation by the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.
The Sentinel's investigation revealed that the license recommended for revocation was relinquished voluntarily. A new license was issued to Adam Allan, the son of former owner Walter Allan, and the business continued as Badger Guns. Adam Allan declined to comment on the lawsuit or the traces for this story.
This fall, attorneys for the Brady Center to Prevent Gun Violence filed two lawsuits against Badger on behalf of four Milwaukee police officers who were wounded with guns purchased at the West Milwaukee store. The complaints allege that Badger negligently and unlawfully sold firearms to people who were prohibited from buying guns and who then shot the officers.
The lawsuits alleged that Badger has accounted for two-thirds of all guns recovered by police in Milwaukee. Badger did not respond to requests for comment and has not yet responded to the lawsuit.
"We need to send a powerful message to gun dealers like Badger Guns that they will be held accountable when they knowingly funnel guns into the criminal market," said Paul Helmke, president of the Brady Center.
Seventh on the list is Trader Sports of San Leandro, Calif., with about 1,605 traces. The store was forced by the ATF to close several years ago after years of violations. Trader appealed to federal court and lost. Though the store no longer sells guns, it appears on the list because its guns are still in circulation.
Lone Wolf Trading Co. in Glendale, Ariz., a suburb of Phoenix, is ranked eighth on the list with about 1,515 firearms traced. Lone Wolf sits in a strip mall, next to Spa Tahiti. Inside, model airplanes hang from the ceiling and the heads of animals adorn the walls. A sign behind the cash register advertised AK-47s for $499.
Lone Wolf has jumped from No. 61 on the 2004 list.
Last year, 12 people were indicted on charges of making false statements in order to buy 17 AK-47-type rifles headed to Mexico. The guns were purchased from seven stores, including Lone Wolf.
Owner Andre Howard could not be reached for comment. ATF officials said they have no indication that Lone Wolf is doing anything wrong or illegal.
Candler Road Pawn Shop in Decatur, Ga., outside Atlanta, is ninth in gun traces at 1,325. It ranked No. 7 on the 2004 list.
"We run background checks on the individuals before they make their purchases," said George Moutos, vice president of Lakewood Avenue Pawn Shop, which owns Candler Road Pawn Shop. "What happens after that, we have no control over."
Moutos said an employee of Candler Road did the right thing when a private investigator came into his store a few years ago and tried to buy a gun illegally through a straw purchase. The investigator was working for New York Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg, who sent undercover private investigators into stores in a number of states to see if employees would allow straw purchases. An undercover video captured the Candler employee refusing to make the illegal sale.
"When one person points to the gun and the other does the paperwork, of course we turn them down," Moutos said, adding that Candler is a large-volume store. He said Candler has been in business for more than 30 years.
Tenth is Shooters of Jacksonville in Florida, with 1,320. A manager there named Mike declined to give his last name and said there's little the store can do to prevent guns being used in crimes. The buyers "fill out the federal document, pass the background check, and from there it is not our control," he said.Mexico
The Mexican traces obtained by The Post involve a shorter period of time - two years rather than four - and a smaller numbers of traces, in part because of problems with traces out of Mexico.
Of the more than 60,000 guns recovered in Mexico and traced back to the United States, the ATF is able to link only about 25 percent to the dealers who first sold the weapons and the purchasers who bought them. In the United States, on average, 65 to 70 percent of the weapons recovered are successfully traced back to dealers and buyers.
Reasons for the discrepancy include a lack of information from Mexico, such as incorrectly reported or obliterated serial numbers, ATF officials say.
Of the leading stores with Mexican traces, Lone Wolf, eighth on the nationwide list, is No. 1 on the Mexico list. Over the past two years, it had 185 of its guns recovered and traced south of the border. Geography is a prime factor in those traces.
Drive 10 miles north from Reynosa, Mexico, and you'll find a string of four unrelated stores that ranked on the list with the most traces to Mexico. One of those is Glick Twins, which sells guns out of a two-story building in Pharr, Tex., and ranks No. 2 on the list with about 165 traces. Robert Glick, owner of the store, did not return a phone call.
A Glick Twins advertisement on YouTube encourages handguns for protection.
"The time to own at least two pistols," a narrator says, "has never been more important than now."
One ATF gun trafficking case began at Glick Twins by accident. Two Department of Public Safety criminal investigators happened to be in the store in April when they overhead a customer "inquiring about how many AK-47s he could purchase at one time" and whether clerks were "going to notify ATF about his gun purchases," a court record said.
The investigators tipped off police, and the man was pulled over as he drove away from the store. He told the ATF that he and another man had purchased 16 to 20 firearms for a man named Chuy, who paid them about $500 apiece, and that Chuy then took the weapons to Mexico. The men pleaded guilty to lying on federal forms and are to be sentenced in January.
Third with about 130 traces is J&G Sales in Prescott, Ariz. Owner Brad Desaye says the family-owned business has been in operation for 33 years. His father opened a gun store in Montana in 1946.
"We've been in business for a lot of years, and we've sold a lot of firearms," Desaye said. "That number of traces is far less than one percent of the number of firearms we've sold in the last two years."
Several times a year, J&G also has large booths at gun shows.
"We're very meticulous and vigilant in our requirements," Desaye said. "We turn down a lot of transactions. If a person says, 'I want five guns,' they don't know what they're looking at, they step back and make a phone call - hey, this transaction is over. Do not step back in the store."
"Unfortunately, if someone comes in and knows what they're talking about and answers all the questions and we get a trace a month later, there's really not much we can do," he said.
Fourth is Danny's Pawn & Sporting Goods in downtown McAllen, Tex., with 12o traces. Owner Daniel Gallegos said he had no idea that his store ranked that high.
"That's news to us," he said.
He blamed it on the fact that his store is about 10 miles from the border.
"It might be the area we're living in," he said. "That's probably the reason."
About seven miles west is the store No. 5: A cademy Sports and Outdoors , with 95 traces. A family-owned chain based in Houston, Academy has 128 stores throughout the South, including eight along the border with Mexico. With the violence increasing and more guns being traced to Academy's outlets, about a year ago the chain removed all tactical weapons, such as AK-47s and AR-15s, from the shelves of its border stores.
"We voluntarily and proactively took several actions that would ensure our firearms sales don't contribute to border violence," spokeswoman Elise Hasbrook said.
Academy also limits sales of such weapons, favored by drug cartels, to one per customer, counts its weapons twice a day and audits the inventory weekly, Hasbrook said.
About 40 miles east in Harlingen, Tex., Valley Guns ranked No. 6 with about 90. Valley Guns closed a few years ago, and the building was sold to a shop called Valley Beauty Supply after the retirement of owner Paul W. Rosamond, according to his friend Joseph B. Vasquez. Also a dealer, Vasquez keeps Valley Guns' archives in case the ATF needs to trace a gun.
"When you're sitting on the Mexican border, those things can happen," Vasquez said. "Who are we to deny a gun to a guy who says, 'I'm just out of the Army and I want to buy this or that.' "
No. 7 is the Carter's Country flagship store in Spring, Tex., with 95 traces. The rustic-style building echoes with gunshots throughout the day from a shooting range just out the back door. Bill Carter's office is in the building, and it is where he runs his four-store operation. The shop includes a gallery of dozens of wild animals from around the world, many bagged by Carter, who lives next door in a ranch-style home.
While court records show that Carter's Country employees have tipped off law enforcement to illegal sales, two former employees who filed wrongful-termination suits have leveled complaints that the company places profits above ferreting out straw buyers and illegal purchases. Carter's Country has denied the allegations in court records. One of the suits was settled for a small sum, and the other was dismissed. Carter declined requests for an interview.
Dallas-based Bachman Pawn and Guns, No. 8 with 65 traces, ended up on the list, owner Shaun Nelms said, because "we're mainly a wholesaler. We sell to other licensed dealers. Ninety-nine percent of our traces have been to other dealers."
No. 9 is Collectors Firearms in Houston with 60 traces, which owner Mike Clark attributes mostly to high volume. Clark said it was a small number, "given what's going on down there." His stucco building in a strip mall belies the trove of antique firearms displayed in delicate glass-and-wooden cases. The curios draw buyers from around the nation.
An expert in American firearms dating to the Revolutionary War, Clark recently gave a two-hour lecture on historic weaponry in his collection at an antiques show in Houston. Alongside muskets and Remingtons, new and used AK-47s and AR-15s can be found in a gun rack on the floor next to the front door. Clark said he would not oppose an ATF proposal to require dealers to report bulk sales of tactical rifles favored by drug-trafficking organizations.
With about 60 Mexican traces, Western Firearms in Bell, Calif., outside Los Angeles, ranks 10th. Owner Aurelio Lopez did not return several phone calls seeking comment. Western, a family-owned business, has been selling firearms for 40 years, according to its Web site.
Eleventh on the list with 55 traces is Sprague's Sports in Yuma, Ariz., which advertises itself as having "SW Arizona's largest firearm selection." Owner Richard Sprague's family has been in business more than 80 years in Yuma, and his grandfather built a hotel on the same property in 1929 when the area was all desert. The Yuma County Chamber of Commerce this month awarded Sprague's, which has been selling guns for 54 years, its Member of the Month award.
Sprague blames his traces on large volume and longevity. Sprague says he has hundreds of customers a day. But it's also location, he said, with the border only eight miles away.
He said it's difficult to catch straw purchasers buying guns for Mexico.
"They've learned how to loophole the system," he said. "They know how to act correctly and answer questions correctly. It is coached and taught, and it's hard to discern."
Sprague, whose father worked for the Yuma County sheriff's department for 22 years, said his store works closely with the ATF.
"We feel like we're part of the team," he said. "That's what you sign up for when you take on the responsibility of being in this business."
Rounding out the top 12 is another Carter's Country outlet in Texas, along the busy Katy Freeway. With 40 traces, the Houston store is probably the second-busiest of the Carter's chain, which Dun & Bradstreet estimates brings in between $1 million and $2.5 million annually.
A gun sold out of the store landed Carter's in a lawsuit in 1997, and around that time Carter began seeking to put the trace data out of public reach. Alek Ambrosio, 21, was killed in a carjacking with a gun stolen by a gang member. The man's parents sued, alleging poor security meant that hundreds of weapons went missing. A appeals court cleared Carter's, ruling that the gun had changed hands so many times that the retailer could not be held liable.
Staff researchers Madonna Lebling and Lucy Shackelford and research editor Alice Crites contributed to this report.