by Kimberley Beatty
Starting in 1990, I was a federal agent with both the DEA and ATF. My first assignment was with the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco & Firearms at their Richmond, Virginia office. At that time Virginia was a major source for illegal gun trafficking to urban centers in the eastern United States.
Over an 18 month period, 1,627 guns were obtained from crime scenes in New York. 41% of those guns had been purchased in Virginia and 10% of those guns were traced to one store, the Virginia Police Equipment Company in Richmond. That gun shop was not far from the federal building where I worked.
Weak federal gun laws permitted out-of-state criminals to purchase large quantities of weapons from gun stores by using straw purchasers. The straw purchasers were often drug addicts needing money to fuel their habit or a poor single mom. When confronted by law enforcement the straw purchaser would first claim their cache of guns had been stolen and then admit to buying them for out-of-state drug dealers, gunrunners and other criminals, often known only by first names.
At that time there were no limits on gun purchases in Virginia. When the owner of that gun shop, Virginia Police Equipment Company, was finally arrested many years later, his attorney stated that what the owner was accused of doing “happens all the time. So, what’s the big deal?”
Indeed! I recently found a “letter to the editor” my father wrote over two decades ago. He wrote, “The ease with which crooks and drug dealers can purchase weapons in retail outlets throughout the United States is a national disgrace. That fact makes a lie out of the repeated National Rifle Association myth that any restrictions on gun purchases would only interfere with the rights of law-abiding citizens because the bad guys steal theirs. What half-smart drug dealer would risk stealing a weapon when it is so easy to walk into a store and buy one or have a “straw purchaser” do it for you? And that is exactly what they do in the absence of any effective national gun control laws.”
ATF was formed in 1972 as a branch of the Treasury Department, but actually traces its’ roots to alcohol tax collection and Eliot Ness and the Untouchables. ATF’s mandates come from the Gun Control Act of 1968, passed after the shooting deaths of Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and Sen. Robert F. Kennedy.
But since that time the National Rifle Association (NRA) has relentlessly tried to destroy the agency. In 1981, with the blessing of then-President Ronald Reagan, the NRA tried to dismantle the ATF through legislation. At that time Rep. John Dingell of Michigan, a diehard NRA supporter, called the agency a, “Jackbooted group of fascists who are perhaps as large a danger to American society as I could pick today.” When they realized that the gun laws would transfer to the Secret Service, the NRA scuttled the proposal. But the ATF would be doomed to the Stone Age of law enforcement.
When Reagan was shot that same year, in 1981, ATF agents had to crawl over boxes in warehouses, searching through federal firearms forms in order to follow the paper trail of purchases of the gun used to shoot Reagan and his Press Secretary Jim Brady. This was because the NRA had successfully blocked computerization of records of firearms purchases, claiming it infringed upon second amendment rights.
By 1991 there were more than 276,000 federally licensed gun dealers in the US. ATF had less than 2,000 agents. Of 34,000 applications for new licenses that year, only 37 were denied. Federal regulations required ATF to process applications within 45 days, so there was inadequate time and resources to do a thorough background check. A reporter had successfully submitted a Federal Firearms License for his dog, Fifi, because the FBI databank could not determine when a name and Social Security number were fake.
That year, Carrol Landis Brown, from Baltimore, Maryland paid a $30 fee and obtained a federal firearms license to sell firearms that he sold from his home and car. He had had a prior misdemeanor conviction, but that was not a disqualifier. During the next 17 months he sold more than 300 guns, sometimes to felons. Fake addresses were procured, federal and state forms were never filed and Maryland’s 7 day waiting period was ignored. Most of these weapons were high-capacity handguns that turned up on the streets and in crimes and homicides. Innocent people were killed.
The NRA’s relentless attacks on federal and state gun laws continued. Its support of the national database for criminal background checks was conditioned on prohibiting local ATF offices or other law enforcement agencies from accessing this information. This further limited ATF’s investigative powers. The NRA also required that all records pertaining to the background checks be immediately destroyed. Their allies in congress blocked legislation that would ban cop-killer bullets, assault weapons and close the gun show loopholes. ATF agents were banned from gun shows, even if we were off duty.
In 1993, against the odds, Virginia Governor Douglas Wilder passed the One-Gun-A-Month Law. It had a dramatic affect. This past February, after almost 20 years, Virginia Governor Bob McDonnell repealed that law, despite pleas from family members of shooting victims at Virginia Tech.