FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
February 15, 2006
RICHMOND GUN SHOW INVESTIGATIONS, STATEMENT OF JOSHUA HORWITZ, EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR, COALITION TO STOP GUN VIOLENCE
The National Rifle Association likes to say that we don't need more gun laws - we just need to enforce the laws already on the books. The minute the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives actually tries to enforce the laws, though, the NRA and its allies in the firearm industry demand that Congress put a stop to it.
When Richmond-area law enforcement agencies learned that local gun shows were an important source of guns sold to gang members and other criminals - including the guns used to commit four homicides in the city since May 2004 - they developed a plan to try to stop these sales. After earlier investigations revealed that people who buy firearms illegally at gun shows often provide false residence information on background check forms, BATFE decided to verify address information on suspicious purchases.
This hearing is purportedly intended to examine claims that BATFE agents and local police violated the civil rights of law-abiding gun purchasers, but I don't see how we can get to the bottom of these issues by hearing one side of the story. None of the law enforcement agents who were actually present at these gun shows has been called to testify. The promoter and customers who are complaining about BATFE's conduct has failed to follow through on threats to file a lawsuit based on alleged violations of privacy violations or other legal rights, and BATFE has said that not a single charge filed as a result of these investigations has been dismissed on Fourth Amendment grounds.
I want to be absolutely clear: the Coalition to Stop Gun Violence believes that law enforcement officers have an obligation to uphold the civil rights of criminal suspects, and we do not think law-abiding gun owners should be harassed or intimidated. Without hearing from BATFE and Henrico police, however, I cannot see how Congress expects to learn whether the operations under scrutiny in this hearing were reasonable investigative steps in light of the information available to law enforcement agents at the time.
The witnesses at this hearing all claim to support enforcement of our nation's gun laws in the abstract, but they don't seem to on law enforcement at gun shows in practice. At one end of the spectrum is John White, a gun dealer who has exhibited at Richmond-area shows. Mr. White describes how "open displays of gang activity have largely ceased as word has gotten out of the strong ATF presence at the Richmond gun shows" and said he thinks "it would be a mistake to remove the ATF presence from the gun shows . . . . [and] return to the days where gangs felt free to mingle with legitimate purchasers."
At the other end is Annette Gelles, the gun show's promoter, who said she wants to "work with ATF in a mutually respectful and professional way" at her shows and that she is "not interested in interfering with their lawful enforcement duties." On her web site, however, she has posted a notice in boldfaced type that says: "TO OUR RICHMOND GUN SHOW PATRONS - REGARDING THE BATFE ACTIVITIES AT RICHMOND - BATFE WILL NOT BE BACK!"
At this hearing, Ms. Gelles has said she no problem with law enforcement but simply wants to make sure it does not interfere with the civil rights of law-abiding citizens. On her web site, on the other hand, she announces proudly that she has succeeded in preventing BATFE from conducting investigative activities of any kind at Richmond gun shows. It says: "After three trips to BATFE in Washington, DC, hundreds of hours of work and tens of thousands of dollars in attorney fees . . . we are in possession of a letter from Acting Special Agent in Charge . . . Jim Cavenaugh, that states in part that 'ATF Washington Field Division, will not routinely be present at the Richmond Gun Shows.' BATFE has requested that we not post the letter. Our attorney worked for 'suitable' wording but however we have decided to remove that posting. We also told verbally in front of four lawyers the BATFE is out of the 'residency check' business."
Based on these statements, it appears that Ms. Gelles' idea of a "mutually respectful and professional" relationship with BATFE is to run them out of town. Laws don't enforce themselves, and unless BATFE is able to monitor activities at gun shows, it will have no way of making sure that sellers and buyers alike are obeying the laws designed to prevent violent criminals from getting easy access to firearms.
In 1993, the year Virginia enacted the nation's first law requiring background checks for all guns sold by licensed dealers, Bill Bridgewater, the executive director of the National Alliance of Stocking Gun Dealers, told this subcommittee:
"The BATF has established rules and regulations for these things they call 'gun shows.' The opportunity for the black marketeers is that the BATF doesn't enforce those regulations and there isn't anyone else to do so. Consequently, there are literally hundreds of gun shows scattered around the country where you may rent tables, display your wares, sell what you please to whomever you please and once again the sale that is made with no records, no questions and no papers, earns the highest sales price . . . . There are wide open gun shows the length and breadth of the United States, wherein anyone may do as he chooses, including buy firearms for children . . . . Do something about the gun shows. Either shut them down or regulate them and restrict their activities to legal transactions in firearms. The Grand Bazaar approach that we now have ensures that every pugnacious child with a grudge to settle and every other form of human predator have easy access to all the firearms that they might desire, while the legitimate firearm owner is increasingly saddled with more and more onerous restrictions"
The correspondence from BATFE to this committee - together with Mr. White's testimony - demonstrates that gun shows remain an important and legitimate focus for law enforcement resources. BATFE began its activities in this area because it learned that at least four murders had been committed in Richmond with firearms bought at area gun shows since mid-2004, and its investigations have produced 19 convictions so far.