Gun show loophole sees many weapons smuggled into Mexico
by CHRIS BRISTOL
YAKIMA, Wash. -- ATF agent Jessie Summers tried to deal with misconceptions before he talked about the illegal gun trade in Central Washington.
"We're not here to take anybody's guns," he told a group of city and law enforcement officials from across the state gathered at the Yakima Convention Center. "The image of us being jackbooted thugs doesn't hold water."
Not that Summers is worried so much about public image of federal agents. He and fellow ATF agent Steve Foreman said Thursday they were much more concerned about the so-called "gun show loophole" that allows unlicensed firearm dealers to circumvent background checks.
Two days before a gun show at Central Washington State Fair Park, Summers and Foreman warned that a large percentage of guns that are smuggled into Mexico come from gun shows in Eastern Washington.
According to the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF), Washington state is the No. 4 source in the country for illegal guns in Mexico.
"Actually, it's just Eastern Washington," Foreman said. "When it comes to gun shows, this part of the state is wide open."
Foreman and Summers cited a recent case when rival drug cartels got into a shootout in Tijuana. Fifteen of the 60 firearms -- many of them semi-automatic assault rifles and high-powered pistols like the FN Herstal -- recovered were traced back to the Tri-Cities, they said.
While the U.S. has become a lucrative market for Mexican drugs, Mexico has become a lucrative market for American guns, the ATF agents said. A gun that retails for $1,000 here can sell for up to $4,000 south of the border.
Representatives from 27 cities across the state attended the daylong forum, which was organized by Seattle city officials and hosted by Yakima Mayor Dave Edler. The topics included Violent Crime & the Business Community (pharmacy robberies), gang crime, domestic violence, and the role of cities in addressing violent crime.
The ATF session on gun shows drew about 30 people, including Yakima County Prosecutor Jim Hagarty, County Sheriff Ken Irwin, Yakima City Councilwomen Kathy Coffey and Maureen Adkison and Yakima police Capt. Jeff Schneider.
The ATF agents made it clear that their beef is not with licensed firearm dealers, who are required to do background checks on buyers no matter where business is conducted, whether it's a storefront, a home or a gun show.
Instead, they complained of the so-called "gun show loophole" that allows unlicensed dealers to get around the government's background-check requirement by masquerading as "private collectors."
Summers, who is in charge of the ATF's Yakima field office, said a majority of dealers, legitimate or not, won't sell guns to sketchy characters, or someone who appears to be a gang member.
But a small percentage of unlicensed dealers have no such scruples, he said.
"It's cash and carry and then it's gone in the wind," Summers said of gun shows. "Ninety-nine percent are good sellers. It's those very few out there in it for a buck who's killing it for the rest of us."
Added Foreman, "He'll sell to anybody and everybody, trade up or trade down, he doesn't care ... It's actually a great business, if you don't get caught."
The ATF agents said they have to walk a fine line between policing gun shows and not appearing too aggressive, given the political climate around gun laws. They said they're often accused of harassment if they ask too many questions, and that Congress has held a tight rein on the agency.
Summers and Foreman acknowledged that requiring background checks at gun shows wouldn't end the illegal gun trade but said it would be a deterrent and help federal agents trace illegal sales more easily.
They also suggested that Washington should adopt California's law requiring a record of all private gun transfers and that an off-duty officer be stationed at gun shows. Last year, a man from Granger stole a pistol at a gun show at the Convention Center and fled on foot. He was arrested at a nearby 7-Eleven store.
Officials from across the state attended Thursday's crime forum at the Convention Center, including Vancouver City Manager Pat McDonnell and Spokane police Chief Anne Kirkpatrick. A number of local dignitaries were also on hand, including state Rep. Norm Johnson, R-Yakima, and Sen. Curtis King, R-Yakima.
In opening remarks, Edler noted Yakima's problems with gangs and guns, and alluded to his controversial membership in the national gun-control group Mayors Against Illegal Guns.
"Boy, has that caused me some headache and grief," he said. "But I'm willing to take it if it's something that can help make my community safer."
Part of the goal for Edler and other city officials was to lay the groundwork for an organized lobbying effort in Olympia on violent crime.
The Harborview Injury Prevention and Research Center commissioned a statewide survey in February to try and assess public views on gun laws.
Bob Scales, a senior analyst for the city of Seattle, said the survey found that 88 percent of the registered voters favored restrictions on gun show sales. In Yakima, support among voters was 68 percent.
Scales said support for restrictions on gun show sales was 65 percent, even among those who identified themselves as members of the National Rifle Association.
He said the survey should come as an eye-opener to lawmakers, whom he accused of failing to enact common-sense restrictions like background checks at gun shows out of deference to the NRA.
"In Olympia, except for mental health issues, they don't want to touch anything to do with firearms," he said.
* Chris Bristol can be reached at 509-577-7748 or firstname.lastname@example.org