U.S. cracks down on
Weapons dealers who use letters from law enforcement agencies to get their hands on machine guns are going to be facing closer scrutiny from the federal government.
A series of cases that uncovered caches of illegal machine guns helped spur the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms to take steps that it hopes will halt the use of phony letters. When the agency broke up an illegal machine gun distribution business in Lincoln County, it found about 800 weapons, most of them machine guns but also including mortars and cannons. It also discovered that the dealer, convicted felon James Carmi, had obtained dozens of letters from law enforcement agencies.
"These dealers trade these law enforcement letterheads like baseball cards," said Doug Dawson, ATF spokesman in St. Louis.
Carmi kept his machine guns in a vault hidden behind a bookshelf on his property - gated and guarded by a dozen Rottweilers.
He also had a stockpile of law enforcement letters that he used to buy and sell guns, Dawson said.
"We had letters from 42 of the 50 states from law enforcement agencies," he said.
The agency raided Carmi's home near Elsberry in October 2000. Dawson said now the agency closely inspects law enforcement letters it receives from dealers seeking to import machine guns.
"We have to verify the validity of these law enforcement letters that come in," he said. "They're being scrutinized a lot more diligently now."
Investigating the letters in the Carmi case alone probably will take several years, he said. He declined to identify the agencies from which the letters came.
Assistant U.S. attorney Jim Martin, who prosecuted one of Carmi's co-defendants, Keith Baranski, said the ATF bureau's improved examination of the letters began during the case.
"They have made a number of changes as a result of the Carmi-Baranski fiasco," he said. "They were starting to make changes even as it was going on."
Federal law allows machine guns to be possessed only by the military, law enforcement and people who obtain licenses as manufacturers, dealers or collectors. Collectors are not allowed to possess machine guns made after 1986.
Because of that ban, collectors often become dealers in order to get access to guns made after 1986, Dawson said. So far, the agency has turned up no evidence that collectors are selling the machine guns to unlicensed individuals, he said.
Several law enforcement groups said they had no comment on whether automatic weapons in the hands of criminals pose a threat to the public. And in the past five years, St. Louis police say they have seized only five automatic weapons.
Witness tells of bribes
Federal law generally makes it illegal to import a machine gun into this country unless it is for purposes of selling or demonstrating it to a law enforcement entity.
In a trial that ended last week in U.S. District Court in St. Louis, Carmi testified that he routinely bribed law enforcement officers to get the letters needed to obtain the weapons.
He testified against Baranski, of Hopewell, Ohio, whom prosecutors accused of using a false law enforcement letter that Carmi helped him obtain from a small-town police chief. Baranski was convicted of conspiring to make false statements in an application to import firearms. The government has seized more than 350 machine guns from him.
Also taking the stand was Jeff Knipp, the former police chief of tiny Farber, Mo., who said he signed the letter requesting a demonstration of machine guns because he wanted a machine gun that Carmi offered him. Knipp said his department, with three part-time officers, had no need of the guns, most of which he could not identify.
Knipp pleaded guilty to making a false statement on a weapons import application. He is awaiting sentencing. Carmi also testified that he had helped Baranski obtain a letter from a tiny New Mexico marshal's office, which had two officers. Carmi said he had another letter from the National Aeronautics and Space Administration. That testimony drew a vigorous denial Friday from NASA spokesman Doc Mirelson.
"To the best of our knowledge, NASA has never had any business with Mr. Carmi," he said. "We've never had any business with any gun dealers from St. Louis. And we have no employees under investigation for allegedly supplying NASA letterhead."
He did suggest that Carmi may have simply created a bogus NASA letterhead. "It's not hard to pull it off the Web site from a press release or things along those lines," he said. Indeed, Dawson said, the ATF bureau has concluded that Carmi simply used available scanning and computer technology to create bogus letters.
Now the agency is taking steps to confirm every law enforcement letter that dealers send in so that such forgeries are detected, he said.
Carmi got a federal firearms license in 1997 for his business, Vic's Gun Corp., by opening it under the name of his wife and his brother Dave Carmi.
Carmi's case demonstrates just how far a convicted felon can get in the gun business. Carmi was a distributor for Heckler & Koch, a German maker of machine guns and other firearms. After his arrest in 2000, the ATF bureau returned 25 Heckler & Koch machine guns to the company, Dawson said.
Jimmi Clifton, a spokeswoman at Heckler & Koch's U.S. headquarters in Sterling, Va., said its distributors have to pass a review and sign a contract. "It's quite an extensive process actually," she said.
Reporter Peter Shinkle: E-mail: [email protected]