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Gun Shows & Swap Meets Targeted
Federal agents find illegal guns, sellers.

Written by Dennis Wagner - The Arizona Republic

Federal agents found a gun lover's paradise when they started making undercover buys at gun shows and swap meets in Arizona.

Affidavits filed in U.S. District Court say the merchandise included pistols equipped with silencers, assault rifles, Saturday night specials and a cannon like .50-caliber weapon that fires a 4-ounce, armor-penetrating round.

Among the estimated 30 dealers were a 94-year-old Mesa man, a reserve police officer in Tucson, a felon and several gun shop owners.

Illegal trafficking

And, according to the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms, much of the trafficking was illegal.

Officials say one Tucson vendor sold guns to a Hispanic agent after being told the weapons were being smuggled into Mexico. A Mesa man is accused of manufacturing ammunition illegally at his home. A Phoenix man faxed his list of guns for sale on stationery from a prominent Valley construction company where he was employed.

Agents visited gun shows from Tucson to Las Vegas. Locations included the State Fairgrounds in Phoenix, Centennial Hall in Mesa and the Tucson Community Center. Investigators also went on buying sprees at swap meets in communities such as Globe, Prescott, Coolidge and Payson.

At a swap meet in Apache Junction, agents reported finding illegal vendors brazenly showing off their wares, some with more than 50 guns displayed in glass cases with price tags attached.

Investigators claim that many of the dealers favor cheap handguns, the type of weapon preferred by ex-cons who cannot purchase guns from licensed dealers because FBI background checks are required. 

The probe comes in the aftermath of an ATF study that revealed a flood of illegal firearms purchases at swap meets and gun shows. In a report to Congress last year, the Treasury Department identified gun shows as "a major trafficking channel" responsible for more than 26,000 illegal firearm sales during an 18-month study. Many of those were traced to subsequent crimes.

The report titled, "Commerce in Firearms in the United States," also noted that felons were associated with selling or purchasing weapons in nearly half of the gun show investigations.

Gordon said the investigation, dubbed Operation Dutchboy, began in the fall of 1999 after surveillance officers followed a convicted murderer to a gun show and watched him buy a handgun. Moments later, they observed another convict purchase a weapon.

Although ATF agents obtained search warrants and raided more than 20 homes and businesses in recent months, only a few suspects have been arrested to date. Gordon said the U.S. Attorney's Office is expected to pursue criminal charges against more than two dozen suspects in coming weeks.

Among the allegations listed in affidavits: dealing in firearms without a license, failing to report firearms sales by licensed vendors and selling guns to suspected felons.

In one case, an ATF agent used the false ID of a felon to buy a gun. The dealer ran a background check and said he could not sell the weapon. The agent pulled out another ID with a name that passed the background check and was sold a gun.

Although the overall investigation remained secret, portions of the case were exposed in the media months ago.

In June, the ATF arrested 61-year-old Robert W. Stewart of Mesa and seized a cache of 38 guns from his home in the 2800 block of North 34th Place. The weapons included an Uzi, five other submachine guns and a kit to build .50-caliber weapons that can hit targets a mile away.

Stewart, who had a prior gun conviction, said the right to bear arms is inspired by God and all gun restrictions are illegal. He later pleaded guilty and was sentenced to prison.

Guns used for crime

In July, Tucson newspapers reported the arrest of Lenny Kong, 47, owner of a hardware and firearms store. Authorities said 70 guns sold by Kong had been used in homicides, domestic violence and other crimes since 1992, 21 of those within three months of the purchase date.

In some cases, officials said licensed gun dealers used fronts to sell weapons so they could avoid background checks, paperwork and taxes. 

According to search warrant affidavits, ATF agents and police officers roamed the state buying guns from private vendors and stores, then back-tracing them to determine whether the sellers acted privately or fronted for licensed merchants.

It is legal for private individuals or collectors to sell personal weapons at swap meets, gun shows or by other means without reporting the transaction. However, federal law bans the commercial sale of guns without a license. And it requires licensed dealers to follow strict reporting laws and submit the names of gun buyers for background
checks.

Some gun rights advocates reacted angrily to the sting, saying the ATF used entrapment and legal technicalities to sweep up weapons from legitimate hobbyists.

'War on guns'

"It's a war on guns. It's not a war on crime," said Angel Shamaya, founder and director of KeepAndBearArms.com, an Arizona-based Internet organization.

Shamaya, who has read several affidavits in the cases, said the ATF operates in secrecy, uses entrapment and builds cases on technicalities in the nation's complex gun regulations. He said none of the investigative targets he knows intentionally broke laws.

"I don't hate the ATF," Shamaya added. "But I despise some of their tactics."

Rick DeStephens of Phoenix, vice president of the pro-gun Brass Roots organization based in Tucson, said the ATF is enforcing "stupid laws" that are "designed to entangle normal, peaceful people in a web of federal litigation."

"The guy selling a gun, or a whole bunch of guns, is no threat to me," he said.

The federal affidavits describe how unlicensed dealers rent booths at swap meets and decorate them with flags and signs, while others operate out of automobile trunks and their homes.

No gun show operators were implicated during the probe.

As undercover agents made their buys, investigators say, some suspects openly mocked the federal statutes. An affidavit written by ATF Agent Tristan Moreland says 94-year-old Wiley Hattley of Mesa, a former cop, was warned by the ATF to stop selling guns without a license. Hattley paid no heed, the affidavit says, and complained about licensed dealers who snitch on illegal vendors.

Just a hobby

Reached by phone, Hattley told The Republic that he sells firearms only as recreation and broke no laws. "Hell, I never made a dime off any gun," he added. "I do it for a hobby."

Asked if he still goes shooting, Hatley pointed out that he was born in 1906, adding, "I can't even see." 

As for the ATF raid on his home last month, Hattley said, "A bunch of cowboys and Indians - that's the way they acted. They really made a big deal out of it. . . . I told 'em, 'If you don't bring my guns back, I'm going to sue you.' "

Government affidavits say dealer suspect Steven J. Mares of Mesa joked about Treasury agents doing a sting and speculated that one gun vendor would end up in jail because he did business stupidly. The affidavits added that he never bothered applying for a license because it was "a pain in the butt."

Mares could not be reached for comment. When agents raided his home in the 400 block of East Glencove Street, court records say, they discovered 106 handguns, shotguns and rifles stored in trash containers, bags, a suitcase, an attic and the garage.

Mesa officials condemned his house, Gordon said, after agents found a 400-square-foot bunker beneath the flooring.

Gordon said the suspects, many of them middle-age or older, do not come across as dangerous, violent or nefarious. He described them as entrepreneurs who make large profits on black-market sales.

Among those identified in search warrant affidavits are:

Harry Sweeney of Tucson, who spoke to an undercover agent in Chinese, court records say, and claimed to be retired from the National Security Administration. Records say that Sweeney belonged to a "Friends Network" of dealers who worked as an underground cooperative to locate, buy and sell weapons.

Peter Fung, 36, a Tucson restaurant operator who told The Republic he is an innocent gun hobbyist. Fung said he has a permit to own automatic weapons and ATF accusations against him are false. As for belonging to the Friends Network, he added, "That's a bunch of baloney."

Uzi in inventory

Harold Fox of Dolan Springs, whose booth at a Kingman gun show featured American-flag table-runners and multicolored, hand-lettered signs. Fox, an unlicensed vendor, told agents that his inventory contained 600 guns, records say, including an Uzi and an unregistered machine gun. Fox did not return phone calls.

Claude J. Langlois, a licensed dealer and owner of CJ's Sportshop in Kingman, who, records say, ran a booth offering some legal weapons, plus assault rifles that were "off paper," meaning no background check was required. Langlois could not be reached. 

Curtis D. Greer, 40, of Phoenix, who e-mailed his firearms inventory to an agent on a computer spreadsheet format, records say. Greer declined to comment.

Cheap guns for crooks

Richard G. Clausen of Mesa, who specialized in "inexpensive handguns, which are preferred by illegal firearms traffickers," according to an ATF affidavit.

In an interview, Clausen said he started dealing guns after a vehicle crash took his son's life seven years ago. He said his son had made accusations against a local law officer, and Clausen believes the boy was murdered. Because authorities would not investigate, Clausen added, he decided to sell so many weapons that government agents would take notice.

Clausen: "It took 400 guns to get their attention."

Did he violate any laws?

Clausen: "I may have. I don't know."

Describing himself as a Second Amendment backer, Clausen denied profiting from firearms deals and stressed that he never sold guns to criminals.

Asked how someone would know which buyers were felons without background checks, he said, "I guess you wouldn't, would you." 

Reach the reporter by e-mail at [email protected]

Or telephone (602) 444-8874.

 

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