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November 23, 2009

What's Going On (at Gun Shows): Free Trade

Bullet Counter Points’ “What’s Going On (at Gun Shows)” series takes an inside look at what happens at the nation’s gun shows when no one’s looking. Our first blog highlighted a UC Davis researcher who photographed widespread illegal activity at gun shows in 19 different states. Next, we took a look at an undercover investigation by the city of New York that captured a host of illegal sales at gun shows on video.

Our latest entry involves two unconventional tales of free trade between the United States and Mexico.

On July 25, Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) agents were conducting surveillance at a gun show at the Expo Center at Kansas City International Airport in Missouri. They spotted Myrna Guerra carrying a semiautomatic AR-15 assault rifle and taking a “circuitous route” to his car. After looking over his shoulder several times, Guerra placed the assault rifle in his trunk. He then re-entered the show and traded cash for another assault rifle with a second private seller. Guerra placed this weapon in his car and was stopped by Kansas City Police Department officers soon after he departed the show.

At this point, Guerra presented a fraudulent Missouri’s drivers license and social security number. After police confirmed this through a computer check, Guerra admitted that in fact he was not even an American citizen-but instead an illegal immigrant from Guatemala. He was immediately arrested, as his status as an undocumented person made it illegal for him to possess firearms under federal law. From his car, police confiscated the two AR-15 style rifles, two ammunition magazines, and gun show calendars from several states. After searching his home, authorities found an additional six ammunition magazines, nine handgun holders/cases, gun cleaning supplies, more gun show calendars, a western Union receipt for $4,000, and three Social Security Cards under a false identity.

In a recent plea agreement, Guerra admitted to buying and selling guns for the past six months at gun shows to earn extra money. He would purchase guns from private sellers at gun shows and sell them to an intermediary, who would then bring the guns into Mexico for resale to the country’s drug cartels. Private sellers were attractive to Guerra because they are not required by law to conduct background checks or maintain records of sale, a problem known as the Gun Show Loophole.

Guerra isn’t the only gun show visitor who saw the Mexican Drug War as a business opportunity, however.

On October 16, Alfred Dwight Watkins, a resident of Luling, Texas, was sentenced to ten months in federal prison for dealing firearms without a license. Watkins, formerly a federally licensed firearms dealer (FFL), had been selling guns at gun shows in Austin and San Antonio despite the fact that his license expired in 2003. He told authorities that he would tell customers that no paperwork was required to do business with him in order to “flip” more firearms. In March of this year, ATF agents searched Watkins’ residence and recovered 65 firearms-including a dozen assault rifles-and 59,000 rounds of ammunition.

Watkins admitted knowingly selling a firearm to a prohibited purchaser. He also admitted straw purchasing a firearm that was recovered three weeks later from Los Zetas, a prominent Mexican drug cartel.

The U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) issued a report in June which stated: “While it is impossible to know how many firearms are illegally smuggled into Mexico in a given year, about 87 percent of firearms seized by Mexican authorities and traced in the last 5 years originated in the United States, according to data from Department of Justice’s Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF). According to U.S. and Mexican government officials, these firearms have been increasingly more powerful and lethal in recent years. Many of these firearms come from gun shops and gun shows in Southwest border states.”

Unfortunately, the total lack of paperwork involved in these sales makes them nearly impossible to trace. As ATF agent Steve Foreman recently pointed out: [An unscrupulous private seller will] sell to anybody and everybody, trade up or trade down, he doesn’t care ... It’s actually a great business, if you don’t get caught.”

Thankfully, the “entrepreneurs” described in this blog weren’t so lucky.

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