Terrorists and gun smugglers like to buy guns in America because of the abundant inventory at gun shops and gun shows, and the laxity of US gun-law enforcement. Here are a few examples:
In July a Venezuelan national and a US citizen placed an order for 150,000 rounds of AK-47 ammunition at a single gun shop in Miami. Although it is legal to buy ammunition in the United States, exporting it requires a special license, which the smugglers did not have. Instead, they listed the cargo as AAA batteries and tried to ship it to Venezuela, which is known to be a source of arms smuggled into Colombia for paramilitary and rebel groups. US Customs arrested the two men after receiving a tip from the gun shop.
Florida is also popular with Haitian gun smugglers. According to the ATF’s Miami office, 25 percent of its gun-smuggling cases in the past two years have involved guns destined for Haiti, making it the number-one foreign destination for guns trafficked out of the area. One bust in 1995 uncovered 15,000 rounds of ammunition and 260 firearms, purchased from gun dealers in Fort Lauderdale. In another incident, two men were arrested after they stuffed 110 semiautomatic pistols inside turkey carcasses and tried to ship them to Haiti, which has long harbored paramilitary groups and death squads. The guns had been legally purchased from gun shops in Pompano Beach.
In July 1999 an Irish postal worker uncovered a smuggling operation that involved guns mailed from the United States to members of the Irish Republican Army. An ensuing investigation by British police and the FBI intercepted forty-six handguns and 600 rounds of ammunition, all legally purchased at gun dealerships in Florida. Siobhan Browne, a suspect whom the Irish press dubbed the IRA “Mata Hari,” told authorities that a gun-shop owner in Florida agreed not to file required ATF paperwork for a fee of $50 per gun. Another suspect, Conor Claxton, who confessed that the weapons were intended for possible use against Northern Ireland’s police, said the IRA chose South Florida because of its lax gun laws and its abundant gun shops.
Although a convicted felon, Ali Boumelhem was able to acquire several weapons by purchasing them at gun shows in Michigan (background checks are not required at shows in that state). He was preparing to ship them to Lebanon when he was arrested by ATF and FBI agents. FBI agents believed that the weapons were destined for Hezbollah, since they had earlier seen Boumelhem in a videotape declaring his allegiance to the group. Boumelhem was eventually convicted in March 2002 on seven arms and conspiracy charges, and sentenced to forty-four months in federal prison.
Members of Al-Fuqra, a US-based organization linked to numerous terrorist attacks, exploited gun-law loopholes in Virginia to acquire a small arsenal of weapons. As a convicted felon, Vincente Pierre couldn’t legally purchase a firearm, so he had his wife, Traci Upshur, buy guns for him. The “straw purchase” was videotaped in 1998 by ATF agents, who were gathering evidence against members of Al-Fuqra as part of a wide-scale investigation. It wasn’t until after September 11, however, that the two were finally arrested, in what US Attorney John Brownlee characterized as a new policy of “prevent first and prosecute second.” Another Al-Fuqra member, Bilal Abdullah ben Benu, lied about his criminal past when purchasing firearms in 1999. Like Pierre and Upshur, Benu had been under surveillance by ATF long before September 11, and was quickly arrested afterward.
Colombian arms dealers ran a smuggling operation out of Florida in the late 1990s that supplied weapons to members of the National Liberation Army, a major guerrilla group in Colombia. When Colombian intelligence officials seized a trove of assault rifles headed to the rebel group, ATF agents helped traced them to gun shops in Miami. The agents believe that the smugglers purchased as many as 600 assault rifles, which they concealed as machine parts and shipped to Colombia on cargo flights.