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October 20, 2008

Shooting with the Enemy

Recently, CSGV Director of Communications Ladd Everitt met with Brian Borgelt, the former owner of Bull’s Eye Shooter Supply, while spending time in Tacoma, Washington. Bull’s Eye was the source of the Bushmaster XM-15 rifle used by D.C. snipers John Allen Muhammad and Lee Boyd Malvo during their deadly shooting spree. Here is Ladd's recounting of his trip...

I recently traveled to Tacoma for the screening of a documentary entitled “Illicit Exchanges: Canada, the U.S. & Crime.” The film was produced by the School of Arts & Communication at Pacific Lutheran University and a premiere was held on October 4 at Seattle’s Museum of History & Industry. During a post-premiere reception, I was approached by Brian Borgelt, who owned Bull’s Eye Shooter Supply before his Federal Firearms License (FFL) was revoked in 2003 following the D.C. sniper shootings (we both appeared briefly in the documentary). He now runs the shooting range directly above the store.

Brian was surprised that I knew who he was, and I explained to him that being both a gun violence prevention activist and a longtime resident of Washington D.C., I was well acquainted with the specifics of the D.C. sniper case. I told him that I had been thinking of visiting Bull’s Eye during my stay in Tacoma, and he was kind enough to invite me in to see the store and shoot at his range.

The afternoon I spent with Brian two days later was one of the most interesting I have spent working in the gun violence prevention field.

The Gun(s) That Disappeared
The shooting spree perpetrated by John Allen Muhammad and Lee Malvo in October 2002 terrorized the entire Beltway area and was headline news across America. All told, ten people were killed and three others critically injured by the snipers in Maryland, Virginia and the District of Columbia. Subsequent investigation revealed that Muhammad and Malvo were responsible for additional murders that had been committed previously in Alabama, Arizona, and their home town of Tacoma, Washington.

When Muhammad and Malvo were finally apprehended, the Bushmaster XM-15 rifle they used in the Beltway shootings was traced to Bull’s Eye Shooter Supply, which was owned at that time by Brian Borgelt. Brian told authorities he didn’t know how the gun left his shop. And it wasn’t just the Bushmaster. All told, Brian could not account for 238 missing guns in his inventory and indicate whether they had been lost, stolen, or sold off the books. In fact, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) had been investigating Bull’s Eye since 1994 because guns from the store were repeatedly ending up on crime scenes.

In July 2003, ATF finally revoked Brian’s Federal Firearms License, citing “willful” violations of federal gun laws (the required standard thanks to a 1986 law written by the National Rifle Association). Undeterred, Brian simply transferred ownership of the business to a longtime friend, Kris Kindschuh, and moved upstairs to run the Bull’s Eye Indoor [shooting] Range. The store never lost a day of business and Bushmaster, describing Bull’s Eye as a “good customer,” continued to supply them with firearms.

Straw Man’s Boon
When I visited the Bull’s Eye Indoor Range on October 6 to meet with Brian, he revealed to me some aspects of the sniper case of which I was not aware.

I learned that the Bushmaster rifle was not the first gun that John Allen Muhammad had acquired from Bull’s Eye Shooter Supply. In November 2001, Earl Dancy, Jr. straw purchased a .308 Remington 700 rifle (a gun often used by police departments for tactical shooting) from Bull’s Eye on Muhammad’s behalf. On August 17, 2002, that rifle was found perched on a bipod in a patch of woods in Tacoma. It had been loaded and pointed toward a nearby apartment complex. Law enforcement traced the gun to Dancy, who lied for Muhammad and claimed that the rifle was stolen from him sometime after he bought it. As the state of Washington has no law requiring gun owners to report lost or stolen firearms (only seven states currently have such laws in place), police had nothing to charge Dancy with and he was released after questioning.

Straw purchasing a gun for another individual (so that they can avoid the required background check) is a federal felony offense. It is a common tactic for straw purchasers to claim a gun was stolen after it is traced back to them from a crime scene. This forces law enforcement to prove that they are lying, which can be extremely difficult if the shooter has yet to be identified and/or apprehended, or if the connection between the shooter and the straw purchaser is tangential.

Brian expressed a great deal of frustration to me that local law enforcement had failed to identify Dancy as a straw purchaser in the fall of 2002 (he was later convicted after the Beltway shootings). He believed Muhammad could have been stopped before the bulk of his shooting spree took place.

I was surprised, therefore, to learn that Brian opposes any requirement for gun owners to report lost or stolen guns. His explanation was that he knows many gun owners who own 30 or more guns and these individuals might not be aware if one or more of their guns were stolen. He was worried that law enforcement might prosecute these individuals if they did not comply with the law.

I told Brian that my personal concept of a “responsible gun owner” is an individual who takes the necessary precautions to prevent unauthorized individuals from gaining access to their firearms (i.e., by storing those firearms safely and securely). It disturbed me to think that a gun owner could be so cavalier about his collection that he could lose guns without even noticing.

I suggested to Brian that even a law that gave gun owners one, three, or a full six months to report lost or stolen guns would be better than nothing (most laws of this type allow gun owners 72 hours to make their reports). It would certainly help deter straw purchasers like Dancy, who would lose their most convenient alibi and face the threat of prosecution.

But Brian wouldn’t budge. Law enforcement should just do a better job of investigating these cases with the tools they have, he said.

It’s Hard to Get Good Help These Days
Regarding the Bushmaster XM-15 rifle that Muhmammad and Malvo used in the Beltway killings, Brian told me he still isn’t sure how it left his store. Bushmaster delivered the rifle to Bull’s Eye on July 2, 2002. Two Bull’s Eye employees later told investigators that they first noticed the rifle missing from a display case in August or early September. The first murders linked conclusively to the rifle occurred in mid-September at liquor stores in Maryland, Georgia and Alabama. Brian did not report the weapon missing—as required by federal law—until two weeks after the snipers’ arrests in November.

Lee Malvo would later tell authorities that he shoplifted the Bushmaster from Bull’s Eye. Brian had a different theory to share with me. He believes one of his employees took the rifle from the store and transferred it to Muhammad and Malvo off the books.

Brian believes he first met Muhammad and Malvo at a gun show in Washington many months before the sniper shootings. They came to his table to inquire about AR-15-type rifles and Brian referred them to an associate of his who was well versed in those firearms. He thought it might be possible that this individual was involved in the illegal transfer of the Bushmaster XM-15.

That was not the only employee that Brian had a problem trusting, however. He told me one horror story after another … One pair of employees he hired became involved romantically and conspired to steal his clients and open a new gun store … Another was embezzling money from Brian by keeping a calculator on top the cash register and ringing up transactions off the books …

To his credit, Brian did require new employees to possess a concealed carry permit in Washington (to demonstrate that they had passed a criminal background check). While not a perfect screening mechanism (such permits are only renewed every five years and it’s unclear how often state authorities check permit holders’ records to see if there is cause for revocation), there is no federal or state requirement in this area, so Brian took this step voluntarily. He also told me he wrote to the National Shooting Sports Foundation (NSSF), the main trade group for the gun industry, requesting assistance in performing more thorough background checks on his employees. They never responded.

Despite these efforts, I found it hard to imagine that this much malfeasance had taken place at Bull’s Eye Shooter Supply without Brian’s knowledge. The showroom is just one large room, with the owner’s office sitting directly adjacent. Was Brian minding his shop at all?

I was also aware that it wasn’t only store recordkeeping that was an issue for Brian during this period. The record shows that Brian failed to file a partnership tax return for Bull’s Eye from 1994 to 2001. But he also failed to file personal income tax returns between 1995 and 2001. He was eventually indicted for tax evasion and pled guilty to a single charge. At that point, he agreed to pay back taxes, penalties and interest for all the counts alleged in the indictment—amounting to $230,884.

President Harry Truman used to keep a famous sign on his desk in the White House that read “The Buck Stops Here.” I’m still trying to figure out where the buck stopped at Bull’s Eye.

“They Stole Your Freedom”
During a conversation about self-defense, Brian threw me a curveball. While asserting his belief that citizens have the right to be armed in public against would-be criminals, he informed me that he had stopped carrying a concealed handgun twelve years ago. His reticence stemmed from an incident when he was jumped in a parking lot by two unarmed young men who mistook a hand gesture that he made. He told me that he spent most of his energy during this brief confrontation defending his own handgun (which he wore in a waist holster and never drew). Thankfully, he was able to subdue the men and prevent them from gaining access to his firearm until a nearby security guard arrived on the scene, but the encounter changed his thinking about concealed carry.

I told Brian I had thought a lot about this topic myself after being mugged in my neighborhood in the District a year ago. I was accosted by two young men (who may or may not have been armed) who took my wallet, cell phone, iPod, and work bag and left me unharmed to walk home to my family. To Brian, the equation was simple—these criminals were “terrorists” who had “stole my freedom.” I granted that I lost my freedom for about a minute, but while I was scared by the incident, I didn’t quite feel terrorized (I was walking in my neighborhood again the very next day and have been ever since).

I also wondered what might have happened had I been carrying a concealed handgun. These guys grabbed me seconds after I first spotted them turning a corner. Would I even have had time to draw a gun? If I was carrying a gun but didn’t draw it, would they have found it on my person and taken it from me, potentially using it against future victims? If I had drawn a gun, could they have overpowered me and taken it from me? What if I had fired a handgun in that type of tense situation? Did these young men deserve to die for stealing my property? And if I had missed my target(s), where would the bullets have gone? I was in a residential area with houses on all sides, mere feet away from where I stood.

I told Brian I had a difficult time imagining any positive outcomes that might have resulted from my being armed during that encounter.

Cause and Effect
That afternoon at the Bull’s Eye indoor shooting range, I underwent safety training and fired four handguns (.357 Ruger revolver, Glock 9mm, Sig Sauer 9mm, Ruger .22 caliber), a shotgun (Mossberg 12-gauge), and an assault rifle (Hi Point 9mm). It was my first time firing anything more powerful than an air gun, and I took to it pretty quickly, grouping most of my shots in fairly tight circles on the targets. I was awed by the power, lethality and accuracy of these firearms—particularly the Hi Point rifle, which had little if any recoil and which I was able to rapid-fire with great accuracy (placing 10 or so shots in the eye socket of the target). It was easy to see how even a teenager without any formal firearms training could become an efficient killer with such a weapon.

Brian was clearly a skilled shooter and proud of his range’s role in training gun owners. He also asserted to me that the range was great for kids, because it taught them patience, discipline and “cause and effect” (i.e., that there are consequences for their actions). On that point, I wasn’t so sure. It’s one thing to blow holes in a paper target; completely another to shoot another person and witness the damage that bullets can do to the human body. I was worried that having fun at the range could have the opposite effect and desensitize kids to the enormous damage that firearms can do.

I was reminded that John Allen Muhammad himself had once practiced at the Bull’s Eye range, honing his marksmanship. He had also reportedly practiced shooting with Lee Malvo—then just a boy in his mid-teens—in a backyard on South Proctor Street in Tacoma.

His Own Worst Enemy
The greatest irony of Brian’s story seems to be that—for all his concerns about street criminals and the damage he has endured in past assaults—it is his own criminal actions and the alleged actions of corrupt individuals that he himself employed that have had the greatest negative impact on his life. On one level, I had a great deal of sympathy for Brian. He clearly was proud of building Bull’s Eye into a profitable business in the late 1990s and devastated at losing the store and his reputation in the wake of the sniper shootings. On another level, it really bothered me that he never expressed any sympathy for the victims and survivors of those attacks, who suffered far worse than he did.

I was also dismayed that he refused to take ultimate responsibility for the guns that were lost or stolen from his store. When I asked him, “If you could go back and do it again, what would you do differently?” he said “nothing” other than that he would have kept a smaller staff once the store began to profit (presumably of those who were most trustworthy). As usual, it was a way to avoid his own culpability regarding the reckless manner in which his business was run.

Just before I left that day, Brian told me he had filed a lawsuit and was seeking to regain his FFL. It was still his dream to be a successful gun dealer. I told him that if he got his license back, I would move to Washington and handle his books. I was joking—I have no bookkeeping experience to speak of—but sadly, I was also certain that if tasked with that job, I would do it right and make sure the store presented no threat to the public. In a better world, well-funded trade organizations like the NSSF and National Rifle Association would step in and work directly with gun dealers to make sure they are running their businesses responsibly (as opposed to turning a blind eye to negligent conduct). But I’m not holding my breath.

Despite my disappointment, I enjoyed my time with Brian. I think he put it best when he said we were able to “come together as human beings rather than political or ideological rivals.” Unlike so many gun rights activists I deal with on a regular basis, Brian was always civil, and eager to engage in polite conversation on a number of topics. Demonizing him would be easy, but he treated me with great hospitality and listened to what I had to say—even when I was critical of him. It left me with hope that we might have more in common than we realize and that—if we’re willing to listen—we might ultimately find some things to agree on that can make us all feel more secure about this world we live in.

October 13, 2008

The Old West Mentality

In the aftermath of recent shooting tragedies at Virginia Tech and Northern Illinois University, much attention has been focused on the policies of colleges and universities concerning the carrying of concealed handguns by students and faculty.

The group Students for Concealed Carry on Campus (SCCC) has insisted that the only way to address future shooting sprees is to eliminate “gun-free zones.” They seek revisions in state laws to force colleges and universities to allow concealed handguns on their campuses. In active shooters situations, SCCC advocates that concealed carry permit holders present on the scene take charge of the situation before trained law enforcement officers arrive. In their view, “the answer to bullets flying is almost always more bullets flying. That’s why the police bring so many guns with them when they respond to a report of ‘shots fired.’

The problem is that this directly contradicts the actual advice of campus police across the country, such as that of University of Cincinnati Police Chief Gene Ferrara, who said, "I don't think the answer to bullets flying is to send more bullets flying. My belief is we ought to be focusing on what we do to prevent the shooting from starting." University of Georgia Police Chief Jimmy Williamson concurred, stating, “I don’t know if society is quite ready for the Old West mentality to come back. How are police to know who the bad guy or good guy is [after responding to an active shooter situation]?

SCCC’s “More Bullets” philosophy isn’t even endorsed by the 11 colleges and universities where concealed carry is allowed on campus. The Colorado State University Police Department has created a pamphlet titled “Handguns on Campus: Do You Have the Facts?” with a section on “Active Shooter Response.” Their recommendations for concealed carry permit holders? For those directly involved in an active shooter situation and unable to exit the building, they advise the following:

1. Go to the nearest room or office.
2. Close and lock the door.
3. Turn off the lights.
4. Seek protective cover. This may be under a desk or table or anywhere else that offers some concealment.
5. Keep quiet and act as if no one is in the room.
6. Do not answer the door.
7. Notify 911, if it is safe to do so.
8. Wait for law enforcement officers to assist you out of the building.

They also emphasize that their officers “receive specialized training for active shooter situations,” unlike the day-class of general handgun safety training typically required of concealed carry permit holders (if they are required by their state to have training at all). Louisiana State University Police Department spokesman Major Lawrence Rabalais recently stressed the same point when Guns on Campus legislation was considered in his state, noting that his officers repeat firearm training twice a year and participate in seminars about how to keep control of their gun during a confrontation.

The Virginia Tech Review Panel was equally clear on this matter in their final report, stating, “If numerous people had been rushing around with handguns outside Norris Hall on the morning of April 16, the possibility of accidental or mistaken shootings would have increased significantly.

SCCC might argue that their lack of training is acceptable because concealed carry permit holders are not meant to “act like amateur, one-man SWAT teams,” but what else would you call it when individual students make unilateral decisions about whether to use lethal force in crisis situations where the potential for collateral damage is enormous?

As Chief Ferrara noted above, as opposed to turning our classrooms into war zones, the logical solution is to enact tougher gun laws to ensure that unstable persons (such as Seung Hui Cho and Steven Kazmierczak) are unable to obtain lethal weapons with which to ravage our schools. For that reason, we are happy that there are students actively opposing SCCC’s agenda, including those in Students for Gun Free Schools (SGFS), an organization founded by victims and survivors of the tragedy at Virginia Tech.