The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosivesí Investigative Operations at Gun Shows

Evaluation and Inspections Report I-2007-007
June 2007
Office of the Inspector General


Executive Digest

INTRODUCTION

The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) has the dual responsibilities of enforcing federal criminal laws regarding the possession and use of firearms and explosives, as well as regulating the firearms and explosives industries. ATF works to investigate and reduce crime involving firearms and explosives, acts of arson, and illegal trafficking of alcohol and tobacco products. As part of its enforcement of federal firearms laws, ATF has conducted operations at gun shows to investigate whether firearms are being sold or bought illegally.

A gun show is an exhibition or gathering where guns, gun parts, ammunition, gun accessories, and literature are displayed, bought, sold, traded, and discussed. The types of guns displayed and sold at gun shows include new and used handguns, semi-automatic assault weapons, shotguns, rifles, and curio or relic firearms. The estimated number of gun shows held each year in the United States can range from 2,000 to 5,200.1 These shows provide a venue for the sale and exchange of firearms by federal firearms licensees (FFL) who are licensed by the federal government through ATF to manufacture, import, or deal in firearms. Such shows also are a venue for private sellers who buy and sell firearms for their personal collections or as a hobby. In these situations, the sellers are not required to have a federal firearms license. Although federal firearms laws apply to both FFLs and private sellers at gun shows, private sellers, unlike FFLs, are under no legal obligation to ask purchasers whether they are legally eligible to buy guns or to verify purchasers’ legal status through background checks.2 This mix of licensed and private firearms sellers makes gun shows a unique forum for gun sales.

ATF’s investigative operations at gun shows received widespread attention in February 2006 when Congress held two hearings to examine the law enforcement techniques used by ATF agents at eight gun shows held in Richmond, Virginia, from May 2004 through August 2005.3

The first hearing presented testimony from four witnesses who alleged that ATF agents used aggressive and harassing techniques primarily at a gun show held on August 13 and 14, 2005, at the Richmond International Raceway in Virginia. Three of the witnesses were present at the gun show: the gun show promoter, a gun salesman who worked for a federally licensed dealer but represented himself as a private seller at the show, and a federally licensed dealer who had exhibited his firearms collection for sale at the Richmond gun show. The fourth witness was a private investigator who was hired by the National Rifle Association (NRA) to conduct an investigation of ATF enforcement activity at the August 2005 gun show. The witnesses alleged that ATF Special Agents and state and local police interrogated and intimidated gun buyers, targeted women and minorities as potential straw purchasers, visited the homes of buyers to verify their addresses, and detained some gun buyers after they left the gun show and seized their weapons without cause.4

At the second congressional hearing, representatives from ATF, the City of Richmond Police Department, and the Henrico County Division of Police responded to the allegations.5 The ATF representative acknowledged that some investigative techniques were not implemented in a manner consistent with ATF’s best practices but that the “focus at the Richmond-area gun shows was on indicators of criminal activity, not on the color of skin or the gender of potential suspects.”6 The representative from the City of Richmond Police Department stated that the Police Department had no intent to deny any citizen the ability to purchase a firearm, but rather to prevent the acquisition of a firearm in an illegal manner, and thereby reduce crime in the City of Richmond. The representative from the Henrico County Division of Police stated that county police officers conducted only six residency checks related to the Richmond gun show, and that each check took less than 20 minutes. The Henrico police official testified that no gun purchases by Henrico County residents were denied or delayed due to the checks.

Subsequent to the congressional hearings, the House of Representatives passed a bill, H.R. 5092, known as the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives Modernization and Reform Act of 2006. The bill included language requesting that the Office of the Inspector General (OIG) assess how ATF conducts “the gun show enforcement program and blanket residency checks of prospective and actual firearms purchasers.”7 The bill was subsequently forwarded to the Senate for consideration, but no vote was taken by the Senate in the 109th Congress and the proposed legislation was not enacted.

In light of the congressional interest in this issue, the OIG conducted this review to examine the policies, procedures, and oversight mechanisms that guide ATF’s investigative operations at gun shows.

RESULTS IN BRIEF

We found that ATF does not have a formal gun show enforcement program, but conducts investigative operations at gun shows when it has law enforcement intelligence that illegal firearms activity has occurred or is likely to occur at specific gun shows. We also found that ATF’s operations at gun shows constitute a small percentage of its overall investigative activities. Past operations at gun shows have yielded multiple arrests and convictions of individuals engaging in firearms trafficking, as well as seizures of firearms that were purchased or offered for sale illegally. In addition, we found that ATF conducted most of its investigative operations at gun shows as part of ongoing investigations of specific suspects whose illegal activity happened to occur at gun shows. Other ATF investigative operations were aimed at widespread illegal firearms activity occurring specifically at gun shows in certain cities, states, or geographic regions.

Based on the 121 operational plans that we reviewed for investigative operations at gun shows, we found that ATF Special Agents had complied with ATF Headquarters’ policies and procedures for planning such operations.

In addition, most gun show promoters and all state and local law enforcement personnel we interviewed were supportive of ATF operations at gun shows. All gun show promoters told us that they were concerned about illegal gun sales and purchases at gun shows and that they expected ATF to enforce federal gun laws. Only the two Richmond-area gun show promoters whose shows were a focus of the congressional hearings expressed concern about ATF’s activities at their gun shows. State and local law enforcement personnel told us that ATF was an important partner in fighting local gun crimes and that they support ATF’s law enforcement activities at gun shows.

The following sections provide additional details on these findings.

ATF conducted investigative operations at gun shows based on law enforcement intelligence.

ATF conducts operations at gun shows when law enforcement intelligence indicates illegal firearms activity has occurred or is likely to occur at specific gun shows. However, ATF has no specific enforcement program directed at gun shows. ATF personnel we interviewed in 11 of ATF’s 23 field divisions stated that they routinely analyze intelligence regarding criminal activity and forward the results, including biweekly crime reports, to various field offices.8 The field offices use the information, along with intelligence from local law enforcement agencies and confidential informants, to develop investigative priorities, manage resources, and plan operations, which sometimes include operations at gun shows.

Although the number of operations at gun shows was low, the operations resulted in multiple arrests, convictions, and firearms seizures.

From fiscal year (FY) 2004 through FY 2006, ATF opened approximately 6,233 firearms trafficking investigations. During this 3-year period, ATF Special Agents conducted 202 operations at 195 gun shows, or 3.3 percent of the estimated 6,000 gun shows held during this period.9 ATF’s operations at these gun shows led to 121 arrests, resulting in 83 convictions. (Some cases are still pending, so their final dispositions are unknown.) Additionally, ATF seized 5,345 firearms during investigative operations related to these shows.

Seventy-seven percent of ATF’s investigative operations at gun shows were covert operations that targeted specific individuals suspected of firearms trafficking.

Seventy-seven percent (156 of 202) of ATF’s investigative operations at gun shows, during the 3-year period covered by our review, targeted specific individuals suspected of a variety of firearms trafficking crimes.10 The offenses included convicted felons suspected of buying guns; suspected straw purchasers; individuals selling firearms as a business without a license; persons possessing prohibited firearms such as unregistered machine guns and sawed-off shotguns; and FFLs that were not documenting transactions or requesting background checks as required by federal law.11 When conducting specific target operations, ATF Special Agents worked covertly, without the knowledge of the suspects, promoters, or other gun show attendees.

Twenty-three percent of ATF’s investigative operations at gun shows targeted widespread local or regional firearms trafficking at the shows.

Of the 202 investigative operations conducted by ATF at gun shows, only 23 percent (46) targeted general firearms trafficking at the shows. Further, only 6 of the ATF’s 23 field divisions – Columbus, Houston, New Orleans, Phoenix, San Francisco, and Washington, D.C. – conducted these types of operations. The operations were not part of investigations of specific individuals, but rather were initiated based on intelligence from law enforcement and other sources such as FFLs, that various firearms trafficking crimes were occurring at gun shows in those six divisions’ geographic areas of responsibility. The alleged offenses included interstate and international firearms trafficking and widespread straw purchasing of guns that were later diverted to convicted felons and local and international gangs. The six field divisions usually conducted operations at gun shows covertly; in association with national violent crime reduction programs such as Project Safe Neighborhoods and Violent Crime Impact Teams; and with support from other federal, state, and local law enforcement agencies.12

According to the operational plans approved by the Resident Agent in Charge (RAC), at two Richmond-area gun shows held during May 2005 and August 2005, the Washington Field Division used “a more overt presence at the gun shows than in the past,” which included direct contact at the gun shows with persons suspected of making straw purchases. According to the plans, after action reports, and interviews with the RAC and case agent, the focus of these two operations was on preventing illegal purchases of firearms rather than on seizing firearms after the sale.

ATF clarified its use of residency checks.

One of the issues the House of Representatives was interested in was the extent of ATF’s use of “blanket” residency checks. We found that of the ATF’s 23 field divisions, the Washington Field Division was the only one that used “blanket” residency checks to help identify firearms purchasers who gave false addresses on their federal firearms transaction forms. While ATF Special Agents have verified the addresses of individuals suspected of criminal violations during the course of investigations, the residency checks conducted by the Washington Field Division as part of its 2004 and 2005 operations in Richmond were unique because they targeted all residents of designated geographic regions who applied to purchase firearms at local gun shows.

During congressional testimony, the ATF Assistant Director for Field Operations stated that “confirmation of addresses through residency checks can be an important tool to ensure the lawfulness of firearms transactions and to prevent straw purchases.”13 However, after the August 2005 Richmond gun show, ATF Headquarters officials decided that area-wide or “blanket” residency checks of gun buyers, while lawful, were not an effective practice. According to the Managing Assistant U.S. Attorney for the Eastern District of Virginia, these residency checks were resource-intensive and rarely resulted in prosecutions for only providing a false address on federal firearms transaction documents. In his January 30, 2006, memorandum to the field, the ATF Assistant Director for Field Operations clarified the use of residency checks by stating, “It is not ATF policy to conduct residence checks without reasonable suspicion that criminal violations may exist.”

ATF Special Agents complied with ATF Headquarters’ policies and procedures for planning operations at gun shows.

We reviewed 121 operational plans for investigative operations at gun shows conducted in FY 2004 through FY 2006 and found that 120 (99 percent) of the plans used the designated template and contained information required by ATF for conducting the operations. For example, the operational plans contained a description of targeted suspects and vehicles, information describing the operational staging area, lists of personnel and their roles and responsibilities, a tactical narrative describing how the operation was to be conducted, and safety information such as the location of the nearest hospital and command post. One operational plan did not fully meet policy and procedures for operational planning because it did not include key information such as the location of the gun show and the command post.

Most gun show promoters and all state and local law enforcement personnel we interviewed supported ATF operations at gun shows.

All seven of the promoters that we interviewed told us that they were concerned about illegal gun sales and purchases at gun shows and expected ATF to enforce federal firearms laws at gun shows. Five of the seven gun show promoters complimented ATF’s crime-fighting efforts at gun shows in their areas and stated they had a positive relationship with ATF. Two gun show promoters in the Richmond area complained to ATF, Congress, and to us that they believed ATF operations at their shows in 2004 and 2005, especially the August 2005 show, had reduced attendance and resulted in the harassment of gun buyers. One promoter, who had testified at the congressional hearing on February 15, 2006, restated her concerns to us: that law enforcement agents interrogated and intimidated potential customers, targeted women and minorities as potential straw purchasers, visited the homes of buyers to verify their addresses, and detained some gun buyers after they left the gun show.

Officials of two national organizations, one representing gun show promoters and the other representing FFLs and gun enthusiasts, told us that they had not heard any complaints from their members about ATF operations at gun shows, other than those associated with the Richmond-area shows. An official from a third national organization representing gun owners told us that ATF Special Agents normally do a good job but that, in his opinion, they had used unnecessarily aggressive and harassing enforcement tactics at the Richmond-area gun shows.

During our site visits to Richmond and to Reno, Nevada, we interviewed state and local law enforcement officials who stated that ATF was an important partner in fighting local violent crime and that they supported ATF’s law enforcement activities at gun shows.

CONCLUSION

ATF conducts investigative operations at gun shows as part of its overall strategy to prevent illegal firearms trafficking. ATF has no specific enforcement program directed at gun shows. The 202 investigative operations at gun shows conducted during the 3-year period that we reviewed predominantly focused on specific suspects, although 23 percent of the operations targeted general illegal firearms activity at certain gun shows. We found that ATF’s decisions to conduct investigative operations, including those in the Richmond area, were based on significant law enforcement intelligence from a variety of sources indicating that illegal activity was occurring or was about to occur at a specific gun show.

Based on our review of 121 operational plans for investigative operations conducted at gun shows; interviews with ATF personnel from 11 field divisions, state and local law enforcement personnel, and representatives from national firearms-related organizations; and an analysis of complaints received by ATF from FY 2004 through FY 2006, we found that, with the exception of some Richmond-area gun shows, ATF conducted its investigative operations at gun shows covertly without incident and without complaints from promoters, vendors, or the public. After the controversy surrounding ATF’s activities at the August 2005 Richmond gun show, ATF issued guidance to its field divisions advising that the use of blanket residency checks was not an effective practice and that residency checks should not be conducted without reasonable suspicion that criminal violations may exist.



Footnotes
  1. We found no definitive source for the number of gun shows held annually.

  2. Background checks on individuals who purchase firearms from an FFL have been required since passage of the Brady Handgun Violence Prevention Act in November 1993.

  3. The Subcommittee on Crime, Terrorism, and Homeland Security, Committee on the Judiciary, House of Representatives, conducted the hearings on February 15 and 28, 2006. (See Government Printing Office website for a full transcript of the hearings, 109th Congress, Serial No. 109-123; or the U.S. House of Representatives website, 109th Congress for Part I on February 15, 2006, and Part II on February 28, 2006, for the transcripts of the hearings.)

  4. ATF defines a straw purchase as “the acquisition of a firearm(s) from an FFL by an individual (the “straw”) done for the purpose of concealing the identity of the true intended receiver of the firearms.” (ATF Order 3310.4B, Firearms Enforcement Program, Chapter K, Section 143(ee).)

  5. The following individuals testified at the second hearing: the ATF Assistant Director for Field Operations, a Major in the City of Richmond Police Department, and the Deputy Chief of Police for the Henrico County Division of Police. Henrico County, Virginia, is adjacent to the City of Richmond.

  6. Hearing transcript, p. 43.

  7. As discussed in this review, a blanket residency check is an investigative technique that involves verifying the residences of all potential gun purchasers who provide addresses that fall within a targeted geographical area to determine whether they have provided false addresses on their federal firearms transaction documents.

  8. We interviewed personnel in 12 divisions, but one division did not conduct any investigative operations at gun shows during our review period, but had conducted outreach (educational) programs at gun shows.

  9. Available estimates of the number of gun shows in the United States ranged from 2,000 to 5,200 annually. We have used the most conservative estimate, 2,000, to characterize the percentage of total gun shows at which ATF conducted investigative operations.

  10. ATF also conducted six operations at gun shows in support of other law enforcement agencies’ investigations.

  11. The National Firearms Act (NFA) of 1934, as amended, limits the availability of machine guns, short-barreled shotguns, short-barreled rifles, sound suppressors (silencers), and other similar weapons. The NFA requires a registry of “all NFA firearms in the United States that were not under the control of the United States [government].” (26 U.S.C. § 5845 (1986).)

  12. Project Safe Neighborhoods is a nation-wide program for reducing gun crime violence. The 93 U.S. Attorneys lead the task forces of local, state, and federal agency participants. The Violent Crime Impact Team initiative was established by ATF to reduce homicides and other firearms-related violent crime in 29 cities.

  13. Hearing transcript, p. 46.



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