Tuesday, August 30, 2005

ATF and Irresponsibility

I was skeptical about a story that broke around two weeks ago claiming Alcohol Tobacco & Firearms (ATF) did “residency checks” at a Virginia gun show. The Virginia Citizens Defense League (VCDL) reported that ATF and sent Henrico County deputies and Richmond, Virginia police to prospective gun buyers’ homes. Officers asked people there if they knew their husband, wife, son was buying a gun and how they felt about that. If no one was home, they asked neighbors if they knew their neighbor was buying a gun and how they felt about it.

Something didn’t seem right so I didn’t write about it. I wasn’t alone in my feelings of unease. Kim du Toit posted about it, but also thought it seemed a little fishy. A follow up on his site cast more doubt on VCDL’s report although it included a VDCL statement that outlined how ATF could have gotten buyer information at the show. Still I had doubts and didn’t write about it. Further, a number of bloggers covered the story and I didn’t have anything to add and didn’t want to provide a faint echo.

Yesterday, Ravenwood’s Universe provided information that erased my doubts. Ravenwood reports that the VCDL obtained records (pdf) with a Freedom of Information request that outlined the operation, its planning, and previous similar operations.

Reading the records, ATF/ police action was designed to ensure a prospective gun buyer lived at the address he or she put down on the Form 4473 and a Virginia State Police form in an effort to identify straw purchasers. Only buyers living in certain areas of the city and county were targeted.

A table tells us that there were four such gun show checks beginning in July 2004 with the last recorded in January 2005. The table doesn’t include data from the most recent show.

There were 189 residency checks and 68 interviews. I’m not sure how “residency checks” and “interviews” are defined. It’s possible that authorities checked other records like phone books and cleared 121 or perhaps all “residency check” buyers without sending officers to their homes. However, 68 unverifiable addresses seem high because police departments have access to unlisted phone numbers and other information. It’s also possible that authorities chose 68 different people either randomly or for another purpose (length of residency, whatever).

The table shows limited law enforcement success. There were thirteen charges of making false claims on gun forms and thirteen charges with attempting to make straw purchases (the sum is the same, but column entries differ). Charges are not arrest numbers and people may face multiple charges, so it's impossible to know who many people the table represents. Chances are good though that many charged with false claims were also charged with making straw purchases.

These charges include all law enforcement at the gun shows and not just results of interviews or residency checks. They could include people who were charged for making a false claim at the show itself or for something that occurred in the parking lot.

Here's the problem. It’s bad enough that we have to jump through hoops to buy a legal product in a free country. It’s worse that authorities are doing “residency checks” using public records if that’s what they were doing. Worst still are those interviews.

So long as we have gun laws on the books, cops and ATF must enforce them. So long as we have enforcement, we’ll have abuse. Make no mistake, this is abuse. Very few gun show attendees make straw purchases. ATF violated the privacy of 68 people and subjected their families or neighbors to obtrusive interrogations--who knows what they did with information from 189 others.

Giving it the most pro-ATF interpretation, only thirteen or so attendees of four gun shows were guilty of attempting to make a straw purchase. We have no way of knowing if any of these were arrested solely because of these interviews, but if such is the case then 55 interviewees were innocent. If you use residency checks as your measure the abuse is even worse, 189 checks to find thirteen or so criminals. Let's stick with 55 interviewees, what other enforcement operation would accept an almost five violations of rights for one charge? While these examples are not directly analogous: Do we check every fifth car for suspended license violations? Do we pat down every fifth pedestrian for drugs?

That’s why I didn’t believe the story at first. I didn’t believe that responsible law enforcement officials in a free country would act so irresponsibly. Sad to say, I was wrong.

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