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

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

Results of the Review

ATF conducted investigative operations at gun shows only when law enforcement intelligence indicated that significant illegal firearms activity was occurring or was likely to occur at those shows.

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 reviewed plans for 121 investigative operations at gun shows conducted during FY 2004 through FY 2006 by 10 of ATF’s 23 field divisions, and all the plans showed that ATF agents had law enforcement intelligence that supported the conduct of the operations.34 ATF personnel we interviewed at 11 ATF field divisions stated that they routinely analyzed intelligence regarding illegal firearms activity and forwarded the results of their analyses to their field offices. The analyses included assessments of the initial sources (i.e., FFLs) of guns recovered in crimes based on national crime gun trace data.

At the field offices, ATF Special Agents and Intelligence Research Specialists we interviewed said they used the divisions’ weekly reports about crime gun traces and intelligence from other law enforcement agencies and confidential informants to identify local trends concerning crime guns and indicators of firearms trafficking. From their analyses, field offices develop investigative priorities, manage resources, and plan investigative operations, which sometimes include operations at gun shows. We provide examples of actual intelligence that was the basis for conducting investigative operations at gun shows in the summaries of operations presented on pages 26 through 36.

ATF’s investigations seldom included operations at gun shows.

From FY 2004 through FY 2006, ATF opened approximately 6,233 firearms trafficking investigations. During that 3-year period, ATF Special Agents conducted 202 operations at 195 of an estimated 6,000 gun shows held nationwide – or about 3.3 percent of the shows. Table 3 shows the number of investigative operations at gun shows conducted by each field division.

Table 3: Investigative Operations Conducted at
195 Gun Shows by Field Division,
FY 2004 through FY 2006

Investigative Operations
Field Division Specific
General Illegal
1.     Atlanta 2 0 2
2.     Baltimore 0 0 0
3.     Boston 0 0 0
4.     Charlotte 17 0 17
5.     Chicago 0 0 0
6.     Columbus 11 4 15
7.     Dallas 5 0 5
8.     Detroit 8 0 8
9.     Houston 8 3 11
10.   Kansas City 21 0 21
11.   Los Angeles 0 0 0
12.   Louisville 2 0 2
13.   Miami 20 0 20
14.   Nashville 5 0 5
15.   New Orleans 1 6 7
16.   New York 0 0 0
17.   Philadelphia 7 0 7
18.   Phoenix 21 15 36
19.   St. Paul 5 0 5
20.   San Francisco 0 6 6
21.   Seattle 9 0 9
22.   Tampa 9 0 9
23.   Washington 5 12 17
Totals 156
Note: At seven gun shows, ATF conducted more than one operation.
Source: ATF

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

As a result of the 202 investigative operations undertaken at 195 gun shows, ATF made 121 arrests that resulted in 83 convictions. (Some cases are still pending, so their final disposition is unknown.) Additionally, ATF seized 5,345 firearms during these investigative operations.35 Table 4 shows the breakdown of the results by field division.

Table 4: Results of ATF’s Investigative Operations at 195 Gun
Shows in FY 2004 through FY 2006

Field Division Arrests Convictions Seizures
1.     Atlanta 2 1 3
2.     Baltimore 0 0 0
3.     Boston 0 0 0
4.     Charlotte 3 2 344
5.     Chicago 0 0 0
6.     Columbus 7 1 8
7.     Dallas 1 1 20
8.     Detroit 0 0 8
9.     Houston 27 17 196
10.   Kansas City 1 0 2,534
11.   Los Angeles 0 0 0
12.   Louisville 0 0 2
13.   Miami 5 4 790
14.   Nashville 4 4 359
15.   New Orleans 9 6 14
16.   New York 0 0 0
17.   Philadelphia 0 0 4
18.   Phoenix 13 3 221
19.   San Francisco 13 11 401
20.   Seattle 2 2 210
21.   St. Paul 5 5 144
22.   Tampa 2 0 29
23.   Washington 27 26 58
Total 121 83 5,345
Source: ATF

Most investigative operations at gun shows were covert operations that targeted specific individuals suspected of firearms trafficking.

Seventy-seven percent of all ATF investigative operations at gun shows (156 of 202) from FY 2004 through FY 2006 had a specific target. In 79 of the 121 operational plans that we reviewed, we found that ATF Special Agents had presented evidence to open an investigation into firearms trafficking crimes by a known suspect or suspects before conducting an investigative operation at a gun show. Most specific target operations at gun shows were part of an ongoing investigation of an individual or individuals suspected of firearms trafficking. An investigation may require ATF Special Agents to conduct several investigative operations to collect evidence. According to ATF case agents and other ATF personnel we interviewed, sometimes the investigation only involves the suspect’s illegal firearms activity at a gun show. At other times, the investigation may include the suspect’s illegal firearms activity at a gun show as well as at other locations such as a private residence or gun shop. When conducting the specific target operations at gun shows, ATF Special Agents worked covertly to collect evidence, without the knowledge of the suspects, promoters, or other gun show attendees in order to protect the integrity of the operation and public safety. As a rule, ATF officials said that no enforcement action, such as arrests or firearms seizures, was taken during the gun shows.

Operations involving specific targets at gun shows generally focused on convicted felons who were 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 who were not documenting transactions or requesting background checks as required by federal law. For example, ATF initiated one operation after an agent learned that a private seller was actually engaged in the business of selling guns for a living. Although individuals are allowed to sell guns from their personal collections without a federal license, they are not allowed to sell guns for a living without a license. In another case, ATF had intelligence information that an individual was making straw purchases at gun shows and then reselling the guns in the Washington, D.C., area. Many of the guns the individual sold were later traced to crimes. Other cases targeted specific individuals known to be engaging in interstate or international firearms trafficking at gun shows. These individuals were buying guns in one state and transporting them to another state to sell to persons prohibited from legally owning guns or across international borders to sell to members of drug cartels or gangs.

Twenty-three percent of ATF’s operations at gun shows targeted local or regional illegal firearms trafficking and only one field division conducted blanket residency checks.

While ATF operations at gun shows most commonly involved investigations of known suspects, six field divisions – Columbus, Houston, New Orleans, Phoenix, San Francisco, and Washington, D.C. – conducted 46 investigative operations from FY 2004 through FY 2006 that targeted general illegal activity related to firearms trafficking occurring at gun shows in their areas. From the 42 operational plans we reviewed and our interviews regarding these general investigative operations, we found that the field divisions initiated the operations based on law enforcement intelligence and information from other sources indicating that various firearms trafficking crimes were occurring at gun shows in the divisions’ regions of responsibility. For example, the Houston and Phoenix field divisions deal with widespread international firearms trafficking by individuals and gangs that cross the U.S. border carrying drugs and then return to Mexico carrying guns that they obtained through straw purchases at gun shows in the southwestern states. In some cases, ATF divisions also had identified widespread interstate firearms trafficking in their regions. The operational plans for these broader investigative operations also showed that the operations were usually conducted by ATF-led task forces associated with national violent crime reduction programs – such as Project Safe Neighborhoods, Violent Crime Impact Teams, or Project Exile – and included support from other federal, state, and local law enforcement agencies.36

Because the February 2006 congressional hearings raised concerns about investigative techniques used at ATF’s operations in Richmond, Virginia, targeting general illegal firearms activity at certain gun shows, we examined some of the general operations conducted by the six field divisions. We looked at the intelligence behind the decisions to conduct such operations, the investigative techniques used to execute the operations (which we found were generally illustrative of those used by ATF for any operation at a gun show), and the law enforcement results achieved. Five of the six divisions conducted all general operations covertly. That is, the ATF agents did not inform gun show promoters about the operations, several agents worked inconspicuously inside the gun show unknown to vendors and the public, and agents did not take enforcement actions at or near the gun shows. The Washington Field Division, which has jurisdiction over Virginia, the District of Columbia, and eight counties in West Virginia, was the only field division we reviewed that conducted overt investigative operations targeting general illegal firearms activities at gun shows. The more visible investigative approach used by the Washington Field Division during its operations at some gun shows in the Richmond area was intended to serve as a deterrent to individuals engaged in illegal firearms activity. One concern raised during the congressional hearings was ATF’s use of blanket residency checks.37 We found that only the Washington Field Division had used blanket residency checks as an investigative technique (discussed later in the report).

The following sections summarize a few of the investigative operations of illegal firearms trafficking conducted by the six field divisions at gun shows.

Columbus Field Division

Columbus’s Jurisdiction

The Columbus Field Division has jurisdiction over Ohio and Indiana. It has field offices in Cleveland, Youngstown, Toledo, Columbus, and Cincinnati, Ohio; and Indianapolis, Ft. Wayne, Merrillville, and South Bend, Indiana.

The Columbus Field Division identified problems with international firearms trafficking between the United States and Canada; interstate trafficking, especially between Ohio and New York and between Indiana and Illinois; and intrastate trafficking by local gangs in Ohio and Indiana.

According to the division’s SAC, in 2006, 5,000 guns used in crimes were traced to gun sales in Ohio. About 75 percent of those guns were recovered in Ohio and the other 25 percent were recovered in other states, primarily in New York. The SAC said that crime gun trace data shows that Ohio ranks among the top 10 states that are sources for crime guns recovered in the United States.

According the division’s SAC and ASAC as well as our reviews of operational plans and reports of investigation, the Cleveland Group II Field Office conducted general investigative operations at three gun shows held near the Cleveland, Ohio, in 2006. The operations were based on information provided by the Cleveland Police Department and other law enforcement intelligence that many of the guns recovered in high-crime areas of the city had been purchased at local gun shows. The field office conducted the operations in cooperation with the Cleveland Police Department and focused on identifying unlicensed dealers, straw purchasers, FFLs violating federal firearms laws, and prohibited persons in possession of firearms at the gun shows. Officers from the Canada Border Services Agency attended the second ATF gun show operation conducted in the Cleveland area in 2006 to help ATF identify firearms traffickers and gang members suspected of buying guns at area gun shows and smuggling them into Canada.

According to the operational plans we reviewed, ATF conducted the operations covertly –.the gun show promoters were not informed of the operations, agents worked discreetly inside the gun shows, and no enforcement actions were taken inside or on the grounds of the gun show facilities. The three operations conducted by the Cleveland Group II Field Office resulted in the seizure of five guns, one indictment, and two pending indictments for felony possession of a firearm.

Houston Field Division

Houston’s Jurisdiction

The Houston Field Division has jurisdiction in Central, Southern, and Eastern Texas along with some areas in Western Texas. It has field offices in Austin, Beaumont, Corpus Christi, Laredo, McAllen, Waco, and San Antonio.

The Houston Field Division conducted general investigative operations at gun shows aimed at regional and cross-border firearms trafficking between Mexico and the United States.

According to an ASAC assigned to the division, between Brownsville and Laredo, Texas, 3,000 murders occurred on the Mexican side of the border from FY 2004 through FY 2006. Two drug cartels are at war in Mexico, and numerous gangs in Houston, Laredo, and McAllen serve as “enforcers” for the cartels. According to federal and local law enforcement intelligence, members of the cartels and gangs get guns from the same sources that law-abiding citizens do – FFLs, flea markets, and gun shows – either by buying the guns themselves or through the use of straw purchasers.

The Houston Field Division’s McAllen Field Office conducted general investigative operations at two gun shows in Pharr, Texas, during 2005 and 2006 to identify straw purchasers, co-conspirators, and others who had been facilitating interstate and international firearms trafficking and to determine where traffickers were taking the firearms and ammunition that they purchased at the gun shows. According to the RAC of the McAllen Field Office, ATF and other federal and local law enforcement agencies tried to apprehend the traffickers before they could transfer their purchases to prohibited persons or smuggle them into Mexico.

According to the RAC of the McAllen Field Office and the operational plans we reviewed, potential straw purchasers and other suspects were monitored by surveillance teams working inside the gun shows. The teams were instructed to conduct the operation as discreetly as possible. Any enforcement activity took place away from the gun show premises. If there were indications that suspects were headed for Mexico, Department of Homeland Security personnel coordinated outbound inspections of the suspects with border patrol personnel.

While some cases are still pending, the McAllen Field Office’s operations at the gun shows have so far resulted in the arrests of 3 undocumented Mexican nationals after they purchased 3,000 rounds of ammunition and 14 firearms that ATF agents believed they planned to smuggle into Mexico. A Mexican national with U.S. resident-alien status also was arrested after coordinating straw purchases of 10 high-priced firearms.

New Orleans Field Division

New Orleans’ Jurisdiction

The New Orleans Field Division has jurisdiction over Louisiana, Mississippi, and Arkansas. It has field offices in Little Rock and Fort Smith, Arkansas; Baton Rouge, New Orleans, and Shreveport, Louisiana; and Biloxi, Jackson, and Oxford, Mississippi.

The New Orleans Field Division and local law enforcement agencies in the New Orleans area identified a long-standing problem with straw purchasers who bought guns that were later diverted to prohibited persons, especially to convicted felons and local gangs. After reviewing hundreds of trace reports associated with crime guns recovered in the area and interviewing known gang members and other criminals, ATF Special Agents identified area gun shows as a source used by local gang members and other criminals to obtain guns. The subjects obtained the weapons either through a third party engaged in straw purchasing or by dealing directly with private sellers who were hobbyists or private gun collectors and therefore not subject to federal regulations.

From FY 2004 through FY 2006, the New Orleans Group II Field Office conducted operations at gun shows in Kenner, Louisiana, as part of larger investigations into illegal firearms trafficking. According to the operational plans, the field office wanted to identify straw purchasers and other individuals selling guns to convicted felons and gather intelligence about the way criminals were obtaining firearms at the gun shows.

According to the operational plans and the SAC, the operations were covert. Surveillance teams working inside the gun show collected information on suspicious activity. Suspects identified as convicted felons by the inside surveillance team had their weapons seized at the shows to protect public safety. Any other enforcement activity, when warranted, occurred away from the gun show. The operations resulted in 12 arrests, 6 convictions (some cases are still ongoing), and 4 seized firearms.

Phoenix Field Division

Phoenix’s Jurisdiction

The Phoenix Field Division has jurisdiction over Arizona, Colorado, Utah, Wyoming, and two thirds of New Mexico. It has field offices in Phoenix, Flagstaff, and Tucson, Arizona; Denver and Colorado Springs, Colorado; Albuquerque, New Mexico; Salt Lake City, Utah; and Cheyenne, Wyoming.

The Phoenix Field Division identified regional problems with international firearms trafficking across Arizona’s and New Mexico’s borders with Mexico. The division also identified regional problems with interstate firearms trafficking between California, which has stringent gun control laws, and the five western states in the division’s jurisdiction, which have less restrictive gun laws.

The division’s SAC told us that many gun shows attracted large numbers of gang members from Mexico and California. They often bought large quantities of assault weapons and smuggled them into Mexico or transported them to California. The Mexican government had expressed concerns about the gun smuggling into Mexico, and the SAC said, “We have to act on those concerns.”

For example, during FY 2004 through FY 2006, the Tucson Field Office, Phoenix Group I, and Phoenix Group II conducted operations that targeted general illegal activity associated with international and interstate firearms trafficking at eight gun shows in Phoenix, Yuma, and Tucson, Arizona, and Albuquerque, New Mexico.38

According to the operational plans and the SAC, no enforcement activity took at the gun shows. Covert surveillance teams inside the gun shows observed vendor and customer behaviors to identify potential straw purchasers and other illegal activity. If it appeared that gun purchasers were returning to Mexico with guns, they were stopped at the port of entry and their vehicles searched. Those operations alone resulted in 13 arrests, 3 convictions, and 193 seizures of illegally purchased firearms.

San Francisco Field Division

San Francisco’s Jurisdiction

The San Francisco Field Division has jurisdiction over Northern California and the State of Nevada. In California, it has field offices in San Francisco, Bakersfield, Dublin, Stockton, Oakland, Sacramento, Santa Rosa, San Jose, Fresno, and Redding. In Nevada, it has field offices in Reno and Las Vegas.

The San Francisco Field Division conducted six general operations at gun shows to investigate interstate firearms trafficking based on intelligence reports that California residents were illegally obtaining firearms at Nevada gun shows. According to field division personnel, Reno, Nevada, is a gateway for illegal firearms trafficking into California because of its proximity (12 miles from the state line) and Nevada’s less stringent gun laws. Unlike California, Nevada does not require gun registration or a waiting period before buying a gun, and there is no legal limit to the number of firearms that can be purchased within a specified time.

ATF agents attended one gun show in FY 2003 and confirmed that illegal firearms sales and other illegal transactions were occurring. Intelligence gathered from this first show was used to plan a longer-term investigation into interstate firearms trafficking. During subsequent operations at Reno gun shows during FY 2004, Special Agents engaged in undercover activities that included Special Agents who were residents of California attempting to purchase firearms in violation of the GCA from licensed and unlicensed dealers. Subsequent operations focused on a number of licensed and unlicensed dealers who were illegally dealing in firearms at the shows. In these operations, agents purchased firearms and identified violations related to “off paper” sales, sales to out-of-state residents, and dealing in firearms without a license.39

According to the operational plans, the ASAC, RAC, and ATF Special Agents conducted surveillance within the gun shows and any enforcement activity occurred away from the gun show premises. The ASAC and RAC stated that all the operations were conducted covertly to avoid interfering with the lawful sales of firearms at the shows. For example, they said that agents worked inconspicuously to observe unlicensed dealers selling to out-of-state residents and served search warrants to targeted FFLs after the shows closed in the evening.

As a result of the operations at the Reno gun shows, ATF seized or purchased 400 firearms before making arrests and executing search warrants, which resulted in the seizure of an additional 600 firearms and the recovery of explosives. Fourteen suspects were charged with 52 counts of federal and state firearms violations. Eleven of the 14 were subsequently convicted.

Washington Field Division

Washington’s Jurisdiction

The Washington Field Division has jurisdiction over Virginia, the District of Columbia, and eight counties in West Virginia (Morgan, Berkeley, Jefferson, Mineral, Hampshire, Grant, Hardy, and Pendleton). It has field offices in Washington, D.C.; Bristol, Charlottesville, Falls Church, Harrisonburg, Norfolk, Richmond, Roanoke, Winchester, Virginia; and Martinsburg, West Virginia.

The Washington Field Division was the only one of the 12 field divisions that we reviewed that reported conducting overt operations at gun shows. According to ATF officials, the Washington Field Division also was the only one of ATF’s 23 field divisions to conduct residency checks based on a designated geographic area. From May 2004 through August 2005, the Washington Field Division’s Richmond III Field Office conducted eight investigative operations targeting general illegal activity occurring at gun shows in the Richmond, Virginia, area. According to the former and current RACs of the Richmond III Field Office, the operations were initiated because law enforcement intelligence indicated that known gang members and other criminals were obtaining firearms at local gun shows and many gun purchases were made using false addresses. ATF officials said that from 2002 through 2005, more than 400 firearms sold by FFLs at Richmond-area gun shows were later recovered in connection with criminal activity, with more than 300 of those guns recovered in the Richmond area alone.

Further, the former and current RACs told us that when their agents tried to interview individuals who had originally purchased the firearms at the gun shows, they found that many of the purchasers did not live at the addresses listed on their firearms transaction documents. They said that some purchasers had used old addresses, fictitious addresses, or addresses of vacant lots on their federal firearms transaction records.40

The former RAC led the first six investigative operations at Richmond-area gun shows conducted during May 2004 through March 2005. The Commander-on-the-Scene of the first six operations was the Acting RAC at the time of the seventh operation in May 2005 and the RAC at the time of the eighth operation in August 2005. ATF Special Agents prepared operational plans for each of the eight Richmond-area operations. The serving RAC obtained approval of the plans from the U.S. Attorney’s Office, ATF’s Office of General Counsel, and the SAC of the Washington Field Division.

At each of the investigative operations, the RAC said he planned to identify potential straw purchasers and individuals who gave inaccurate information on their federal firearms transaction records, especially those giving false addresses. According to the operational plans and the RACs, the objectives of the operations were to enforce federal firearms trafficking laws and to prevent prohibited persons from obtaining firearms through illegal sales, especially through straw purchases.

ATF conducted the first seven operations at gun shows held at a building called The Showplace, which is located just outside Richmond’s city limits but adjacent to the city’s three highest violent crime areas. The same gun show promoter organized the seven shows, and the promoter and his attorney met with ATF officials on several occasions during the shows. The promoter asked ATF to provide educational materials and training for FFLs at the gun shows so they could better identify straw purchases and other firearms violations.

For the first seven operations, ATF agents established a mobile command post about 2 miles from the site of the gun show and used surveillance units to monitor activity in the gun show. When possible, the RAC said that enforcement activity occurred off-site of the show. Before each show, the RAC notified the promoters and property managers that ATF would be conducting operations at the gun show.

During the first seven operations, ATF agents used blanket residency checks to verify the addresses of potential gun buyers. According to ATF officials, ATF Special Agents are permitted to verify addresses as part of an investigation. While there are several ways to verify an address, for these seven operations ATF asked local law enforcement officers to visit the addresses to determine whether the buyers actually lived there. These visits were made to City of Richmond addresses supplied by potential gun buyers if FFLs delivered their transaction documents directly for background checks to on-site Virginia State Police personnel. If the visits could not be conducted within 20 minutes by law enforcement officers in the field, the purchases were allowed to proceed. No visits were made if FFLs telephoned requests for background checks from their tables or booths at the shows rather than taking paper forms to the police personnel on site. According to the RACs, the purpose of the residency checks was to identify those buyers giving false addresses on their firearms transaction documents, a problem that had been identified in past investigations. Potential buyers who did not reside at the addresses they had provided were interviewed off-site of the gun shows by ATF agents, and some were subsequently charged with providing false information on federal and state documents.

ATF also positioned surveillance teams inside the gun shows to observe persons making straw purchases. The RACs and agents stated that evidence of straw purchases is based on behavioral characteristics such as purchasers who are disinterested in or lacking knowledge about the guns they buy, taking buying instructions from a companion or over a cell phone, and presenting identification dated the day of the gun show. ATF personnel said that the characteristics are not based on gender or race but on the actions of the individuals. According to the RAC, suspected straw purchasers were sometimes approached by ATF agents or other law enforcement personnel before a sale was completed and, at other times, they were followed and interviewed away from the gun shows. In some cases, ATF agents seized suspects’ guns and handed them a pre-printed letter telling them they may have violated federal firearms laws and citing a date and time for a follow-up interview. When suspects admitted making straw purchases or the guns were found in possession of prohibited persons, the suspects were arrested. These enforcement actions were taken off-site of the gun shows.

For the seventh and eighth operations, the new RAC expanded the objectives of the operations to focus overtly on education, enforcement, and prevention for a deterrent effect. Therefore, operations carried out at the May 2005 and August 2005 gun shows included enforcement techniques that were more visible to the public.

The RAC instructed agents and police officers to use their judgment as to when and where to make contact with suspects and that possible contact points included FFL tables, snack bars, the on-site Virginia State Police office foyer, or the officer’s or agent’s vehicle. However, ATF agents did not hand out letters to suspected straw purchasers. According to the RAC, ATF agents, and other attendees at the gun shows, this overt approach provided increased contact with potential straw purchasers as agents and officers informed individuals attending the gun shows about the penalties for unlawfully purchasing a firearm for another person. ATF agents reported that the operations resulted in “hundreds of citizen contacts.”

The eighth operation, conducted in August 2005, was different in several ways. First, the site of the gun show changed from The Showplace to the Richmond International Raceway and Fairgrounds complex. The gun show also was organized by a different gun show promoter who had no prior experience with this type of overt ATF operation. The RAC established a law enforcement command post inside the gun show facility and, for the first time, pre-operation briefings were held on the grounds of the gun show facility in full view of many FFLs and the attending public. The RAC also expanded the geographic area for the residency checks to include not only the City of Richmond but also all of Henrico County. County police had expressed concern about illegal gun purchases and crime guns in the county. This was the first operation in which the Henrico County Division of Police helped conduct residency checks. As in the previous seven operations, when FFLs telephoned their requests for background checks to the Virginia State Police, the buyers’ residences were not visited by the police for verification. Also, potential buyers who did not reside at the addresses they had provided were interviewed off-site of the gun show by ATF agents, and some were subsequently charged with providing false information on federal and state documents. If residency could not be verified within 20 minutes, the firearms purchase was not delayed.

As a result of the 302 residency checks conducted as part of the eight operations at Richmond-area gun shows, ATF found that 47 purchasers, or 16 percent, provided invalid addresses. However, the U.S. Attorney’s Office rarely chose to prosecute a case that involved only an invalid address. The Washington Field Division also used residency checks to a much lesser extent during a gun show in Chantilly, Virginia, in August 2004, where one residency check was conducted, and during a gun show in Hampton, Virginia, in September 2004, where eight residency checks were conducted.

In January 2006, ATF’s Assistant Director for Field Operations issued guidance to ATF personnel reinforcing policy and best practices related to operations at gun shows, including conducting residency checks. In his guidance, the Assistant Director stated, “It is not ATF policy to conduct residence checks without reasonable suspicion that criminal violations may exist.” ATF officials said that they are incorporating the guidance into ATF’s Order 3310.4B, Firearms Enforcement Program.

Overall, the eight investigative operations conducted by the Washington Field Division at Richmond-area gun shows resulted in 24 arrests and 23 convictions for firearms violations. Most of the convictions were for straw purchases. ATF Special Agents also seized 47 illegally purchased firearms.

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

We reviewed 121 operational plans and found that 120 (99 percent) of these plans complied with ATF policies and procedures regarding operational planning. All of the operational plans except one used the designated template, ATF Form 3210.7, ATF Operational Plan, and contained information identified by ATF policy as appropriate for conducting the operations. For example, the operational plans contained a description of specific targets 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 command post and the nearest hospital.

One operational plan we reviewed did not fully meet ATF’s policy and procedures for operational planning. When we requested the operational plan for this particular gun show operation, we only received a tactical narrative and a roster of assigned personnel and their roles and responsibilities. We did not receive a completed ATF Form 3210.7, the standard planning template for significant investigative operations. Further, the tactical narrative did not provide the location of the gun show and the location of the command post. The RAC for the operation stated that the ATF Form 3210.7 that was prepared for previous gun show operations also covered this operation, but the location of the gun show, command post, and law enforcement roles had changed and a new form should have been prepared.

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

Few Complaints about ATF
During FY 2004 Through FY 2006

In response to our request for all complaints received from FY 2004 through FY 2006 regarding Special Agent conduct and activities at gun shows, ATF provided us with 22 letters from 20 complainants. Of the 20 complainants, 18 expressed concern about the August 2005 gun show in Richmond. However, 17 of the 18 complainants had not attended the August 2005 show. Of those 17 complaints, 15 were based on an article posted on an Internet website.

Of the remaining two letters, the first complainant complained about his arrest for possession of a firearm by a prohibited person due to a misdemeanor domestic assault conviction in New Jersey. He was stopped and arrested after being followed from a gun show on suspicion of a straw purchase. The second complainant had been indicted recently for selling firearms without a license at a gun show and was angry that his inventory had been seized by ATF.

Five of the seven gun show promoters we interviewed from different areas of the country where large numbers of gun shows are held each year complimented ATF’s firearms enforcement efforts. These five promoters had a total of 96 years of experience organizing gun shows. Collectively, they conduct 94 shows per year with a total attendance in excess of 150,000. The promoters stated that they had a “good” or “very good” relationship with ATF and that they had never received complaints about ATF’s tactics or behavior at their shows. One promoter, however, told us there is always a small group that questions any ATF involvement at a gun show for any reason. He did not consider such comments to be complaints, but rather a “philosophical statement.”

Two Richmond-area promoters expressed concerns that ATF Special Agents used aggressive and harassing techniques at the August 2005 gun show that was held at the Richmond International Raceway and Fairgrounds complex. One promoter, who had testified at the first 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 and seized their weapons without cause.41

All seven of the promoters told us that illegal gun sales and purchases at gun shows are an appropriate concern and that they expect ATF to enforce federal firearms laws at gun shows. They also stated that illegal gun sales by unlicensed vendors hurt the legitimate businesses at the shows and that they had all received at least some complaints from FFLs about the activities of unlicensed dealers. In addition to individual gun show promoters, we interviewed several public interest groups representing gun show promoters, FFLs, gun owners, and collectors. Their comments are summarized below.

During our site visits to Richmond and Reno, we interviewed state and local law enforcement officials with the Richmond City Police, Henrico County Division of Police, Virginia State Police, and Washoe (Nevada) County Sheriff’s Office. Generally, these officials stated that ATF was an important partner in fighting local violent crime and that they supported ATF’s activities. The state and local law enforcement officials’ comments specific to gun show enforcement are summarized below.

Matters for Management Consideration

During our review of operational plans and interviews with field division personnel, we identified two matters related to ATF policy that could strengthen investigative operations at gun shows. In the following sections, we provide information about the two matters for ATF management’s consideration.

ATF’s national policies contain contradictory guidance on approving operations.

ATF Order 3310.4B, Firearms Enforcement Program, contradicts instructions in ATF Order 3210.1A, Operational Planning, regarding approval requirements for operational plans. Order 3310.4B states that “the SAC is the approving official for all significant/sensitive enforcement activities such as issuing notices, summonses or subpoenas, making arrests, or executing warrants on the gun show or flea market premises, or their adjacent parking lots.” However, Order 3210.1A states that an ATF Form 3210.7, ATF Operational Plan, is required for “search warrants, arrest warrants, undercover purchases, buy-busts, and/or special undercover operations” and “shall be... submitted to the affected RAC/GS [Group Supervisor] for review and approval.” The order goes on to state, “the RAC/GS must notify the ASAC of the operation. Notification may also take place by telephone, facsimile, or e-mail.” No reference is made to SAC approval or to ATF Order 3310.4B. Although we found that SACs or ASACs generally were knowledgeable about gun show operations in their divisions, field office and division personnel expressed some uncertainty about the approval chain for the operational plans when we asked about the process during interviews. Therefore, the ATF should consider clarifying the operational plan approval process by revising the guidance in ATF Order 3310.4B and ATF Order 3210.1A so that they agree.

One field division has developed local policy for conducting investigative operations at gun shows in its region.

Because national policy for investigative operations at gun shows is general and primarily focused on specific suspects, the Houston Field Division has developed policy to guide operations involving general illegal firearms activity at gun shows to meet local priorities and conditions. The field divisions we reviewed that conducted the general operations told us that the operations require more guidance because they are aimed at a wider range of criminal firearms activity, involve unknown suspects, and may involve interstate and international jurisdictions and laws. The Houston Field Division, which conducted several operations at gun shows targeting interstate and international firearms trafficking, issued written regional guidance describing the SAC’s requirements and best practices for operations at gun shows. Personnel from the other field divisions we reviewed told us that they relied on verbal guidance, which was articulated on a case-by-case basis by the SAC during the approval process for specific operations. However, several field divisions’ succession of SACs during our study period made it difficult for agents to know what verbal guidance was in effect from SAC to SAC.

After reviewing the Houston Division’s policy, we found that it addressed several planning, communication, coordination, and legal requirements that supplement national policy and facilitate conducting investigative operations at gun shows. Key provisions include:

  1. Increased involvement by ATF support personnel, such as Intelligence Research Specialists and Tactical Operations Officers, early in the planning process.

  2. Strong consideration of local law enforcement participation, particularly securing marked police vehicles for any necessary traffic stops.

  3. Timely submission of operational plans to allow for thorough review, analysis, and authorization to occur.

  4. Participation by other federal law enforcement agencies that can contribute valuable knowledge and services that increase the effectiveness and safety of gun show operations. For example, the Houston guidance stresses that Special Agents should attempt to have a Department of Homeland Security presence during operations at gun shows to handle any situations involving illegal aliens in possession of firearms.

  5. Consideration of certain legal concerns relevant to gun shows, such as approaching individuals in the show’s parking lot.

  6. Coordination of potential international firearms trafficking with federal, state, and foreign law enforcement agencies.

Divisions that identify a need to conduct investigative operations directed at general illegal firearms activity may find a policy like Houston’s to be a “best practice” that could be adapted to their own circumstances. Therefore, we are providing this information so that ATF management may consider Houston’s approach to developing local policies and procedures that describe unique regional problems and provide specific considerations and methods for handling issues encountered during operations at gun shows.

  1. Two of the 12 ATF field divisions we reviewed did not have operational plans related to gun shows. The Baltimore Field Division had no investigative operations at gun shows during our review period, but had conducted outreach (educational) programs at gun shows. The Philadelphia Field Division conducted seven operations that were limited to surveillance at gun shows; operations to conduct only surveillance do not require operational plans.

  2. ATF does not track the results of gun show operations, but rather the results of firearms trafficking investigations.

  3. 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. Project Exile is a federal program that shifts the prosecution of illegal gun possession offenses from state courts to federal court, where under the Gun Control Act, convictions carry a mandatory minimum sentence of 5 years in federal prison.

  4. 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.

  5. The plans for these operations cited the goals of targeting gun trafficking to Mexico; illegal aliens in possession of guns; armed traffickers purchasing, selling, or exchanging guns for narcotics; convicted felons in possession of firearms; individuals trying to purchase explosives to traffic in Mexico; vendors dealing in firearms as a business without a license; and vendors selling firearms to out-of-state buyers.

  6. “Off paper” sales are those that are made by FFLs who have not documented the sale or requested the required background checks before making the sales.

  7. Federal law prohibits knowingly giving false information to an FFL in connection with the purchase of a firearm and prohibits the sale of a firearm by an FFL to a person prohibited from possessing a firearm. The accuracy of the information purchasers provide is particularly important because it is used to initiate the background check process the GCA requires.

  8. 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.)

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