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How US Dealers Arm the World | The Nation

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How US Dealers Arm the World

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'Bubba Did It'

About the Author

Julia Reynolds
Julia Reynolds, a reporter with the Center for Investigative Journalism, is the editor of El Andar magazine.
Jake Bergman
Jake Bergman is a reporter for public radio KQED in northern California.

This story is based on the investigation for "Gun Land," a report
that will air November 15 on NOW With Bill Moyers on PBS. The
report was produced by Oriana Zill for KQED TV, the Center for
Investigative Reporting
and NOW With Bill Moyers. Jake Bergman was the associate producer on "Gun Land." David Montero and George Sanchez of CIR also reported for this article.

When Gun Land's owner, William Ben Woodall, answers the phone, he doesn't use his real name. "Tell 'em Bubba did it," he laughs. "Bubba" says there's no limit to the number of guns that someone can buy in Florida. He says he'd probably call ATF if someone came in to buy hundreds of semiautomatic rifles, but that if the person "looked right and acted right" and passed the NICS test--the National Instant Criminal Background Check System, which requires gun-shop owners to call ATF and check whether a client is a felon or is otherwise prohibited from buying guns--he'd have no problem. Such a purchase, he says, is ultimately a customer's right. "Cars kill more people than guns," he says.

Weapons sold over the counter can quickly find themselves bound by air for distant countries. Since September 11, 2001, Customs has stepped up its monitoring of outbound small aircraft, but such inspections are aimed more at stopping the delivery of components used in weapons of mass destruction, like triggering devices or plutonium, than at halting gun shipments. McBride says we should also be concerned about guns. Recalling a 1985 rampage by one guerrilla group, he says, "The M-19 raided and assaulted the Palace of Justice in Colombia, killing 115 people, eleven Supreme Court justices, and wiped out the Supreme Court of the country of Colombia. And these were guns that were subsequently traced back to the United States."

McBride says South Florida investigators came to see a connection between purchases here and violence abroad. "We would see, all of a sudden, a rash of large gun purchases, a large quantity of gun purchases throughout South Florida. We would find that then, a month or two months later, we would see a coup take place in Haiti." McBride adds that Florida is especially attractive to South and Central America, "because of our geographic location [and] the ease with which firearms can be secured here."

Guns and the War on Terror

After September 11, Attorney General Ashcroft told the nation, "It's our position at the Justice Department and the position of this Administration that we need to unleash every possible tool in the fight against terrorism, and to do so promptly." The resulting USA Patriot Act includes broad changes in surveillance, information sharing and intelligence tools available to law enforcement. Although the "Patriot" part of the act's title refers to "Providing Appropriate Tools Required to Intercept and Obstruct Terrorism," the act contains no new provisions for the monitoring or control of firearms.

One tool became apparent in the weeks after the 9/11 attacks, when agents from ATF asked the FBI to cross-check a list of terrorist suspects against NICS records of approved gun purchasers. The records ATF wanted the FBI to examine were the normal background check records of potential gun purchasers, which are kept for ninety days. But when the FBI began its NICS checks, Attorney General Ashcroft and Justice Department officials stepped in and told the FBI it was out of bounds.

"This decision by the Attorney General was surprising in that he didn't place officer safety and the security of the American people first," says a former official at the Treasury Department, which oversees ATF. Kenneth James, recently appointed to the firearms committee of the International Association of Chiefs of Police, agrees. "If we have some form of identifying who of these terrorists may have had guns, that just makes our investigation and the people who are out there on the frontlines that much safer."

Ashcroft defended his decision on legal grounds. "It's my belief," he said, "that the United States Congress specifically outlaws and bans the use of the NICS database--and that's the use of approved purchase records--for weapons checks on possible terrorists or on anyone else." But an internal Justice Department memo shows that Ashcroft's own office of legal counsel believed otherwise and supported the longtime FBI practice of using NICS records in criminal investigations. "We see nothing in the NICS regulations," the memo read, "that prohibits the FBI from deriving additional benefits from checking audit log records."

Mathew Nosanchuk once worked for the Justice Department, where he became an expert on law enforcement's use of NICS. He now works for the Violence Policy Center, a Washington-based gun-control group. Ashcroft, Nosanchuk says, is forcing the FBI and ATF to "conduct the post-September 11 investigation with one hand tied behind their backs." Nosanchuk says Ashcroft's stance "really underscores his allegiance to the agenda of the gun lobby." The National Rifle Association's position is that NICS "has serious flaws that must be corrected."

According to the Center for Responsive Politics, the NRA and related pro-gun lobbyists contributed $48,900 to Ashcroft's failed 2000 Senate re-election bid. Federal Election Commission filings indicate the NRA also spent $239,000 on independent TV and radio ads, billboards and bumper stickers supporting Ashcroft's campaign. Later, the NRA Political Victory Fund spent more than $100,000 on an endorsement letter and $19,000 on bumper stickers at the time of Ashcroft's Justice Department confirmation.

Law enforcement has increasingly found guns to be a critical source of evidence in its investigations of terrorists and other criminal groups. It was the suspects' outdoor shooting activities that led to the October arrests of four alleged Al Qaeda trainees in Oregon and Michigan. As Ashcroft himself pointed out, members of the group "acquired various firearms and engaged in weapons training and physical training in preparation to fight a jihad." Among the detainees swept up in the weeks after 9/11 were several members of Al-Fuqra, a domestic group suspected of at least seventeen firebombings and thirteen homicides in the United States. Three Al-Fuqra members were arrested and convicted of illegally buying assault rifles, pistols and AK-47 ammunition in rural Virginia. A prior weapons-violation warrant was used to detain last month's Washington-area snipers until murder charges could be filed. (The Bushmaster rifle the snipers used is another modified weapon designed to avoid the Assault Weapons Ban.)

Even international criminals criticize America's lax gun laws and say they inevitably lead to international trafficking. Conor Claxton, who was convicted of smuggling more than 100 guns from Florida to the Irish Republican Army in 1999, said the group did its shopping near Fort Lauderdale because "we don't have gun shows in Ireland. You see things here like you never imagined." Rafael Ceruelos, who has lived in Spain since serving time for his offenses, says, "The right to bear arms made sense 200 years ago but not now." He adds, "As long as people can buy weapons in gun shops, there will be people from other countries who want to do business with them."

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