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Disregard for Crime
Since the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms is a law-enforcement agency, one might expect that the guns it is taking out of circulation would be the types most often used in crime. But this is not the case at all.
Freedom of Information requests for BATF data yielded an 18-inch-high stack of Reports of Property Subject to Judicial Forfeiture. The record shows that rifles and shotguns are confiscated more often than handguns-nearly 60 percent long arms, compared to 40 percent handguns. Guns that are used rather rarely in street crime, such as a $10,000 silver-inlaid shotgun, were not only confiscated but “retained for official use,” according to the property reports. “Saturday Night Specials”-the ubiquitous weapon of crime, according to the Bureau-account for only four percent of the confiscated guns listed in those reports. Compare all these facts to a December 1973 BATF press release claiming that small, concealable handguns accounted for 71 percent of the crime in four major US cities, and it becomes clear that if BATF is making any attempt to curtail the use of firearms in crime, it is failing dismally.
Other BATF data make it highly questionable whether the Bureau is even expending much effort in that direction. Its own published breakdown of prosecutions by city show that in Washington, D.C., for example, the Bureau conducted 1,603 investigations during the period reported, and only 206 of them dealt with felon in possession of firearms, only 58 with stolen firearms, and only 20 with use of firearms in commission of a felony. Since numerous studies have shown that 25 percent of the handguns used in crime are stolen, it is shocking that less than four percent of BATF’S Washington investigations zeroed in on firearms theft.
The situation has moved some police officers to speak up, noting that in their experience BATF has shown not only neglect but a distinct lack of interest in pursuing those actually committing firearms crimes. A. H. Pickles, chief of police of Leavenworth, Kansas, reports that “on a few occasions I did call [BATF] on cases that were serious violations of federal law. One was a criminal who completely forged a federal form to purchase a pistol, and the other was a case of an illegal alien who bought a pistol with which she shot her male companion... There was never any action taken against these real criminals by [BATF].” Chief Pickles issued an order to his department that they would henceforth not participate in any joint operation with BATF unless no other federal agency could provide assistance.
Of course, catching thieves and murderers is far more dangerous and difficult than entrapping citizens who are likely to abide by clearly stated laws and, believing themselves to be law-abiding, are unlikely to resist confiscation or arrest with violence. Evidence does indicate that in some cases individuals are picked out for criminal investigation on the basis of the ease and safety with which they may be arrested or because of some special grudge.
One Illinois dealer who regularly spoke out publicly against BATF was pursued by the Bureau for years. Attempting to build a case through the use of informants and entrapment, BATF had amassed a file, obtained under Freedom of Information, in excess of 5,500 pages. The dealer’s attorney related that there had been eleven separate attempts to entrap the dealer. One BATF agent had kept a notebook detailing these attempts, and the attorney estimated that the agent had spent over 1,000 hours in his efforts against the dealer.
Yet for several years Bureau administrators have been appearing before Congress complaining that they have neither the funds nor the manpower to do an adequate job of enforcing federal gun law. It is especially ironic that they emphasize not having the resources to begin to move against gun thefts.
The point of the investigations it does specialize in–and the resultant seizures and arrests-seems clear: to generate enough publicity to impress Congress and the public with the Bureau’s enforcement record. Accordingly, BATF has developed an extensive press relations program, which includes using the press to increase its conviction rate.
In his introduction to the BATF manual Public Affairs Guidelines, former director Rex Davis noted that an “effective public affairs program. . . has a favorable impact on the attitudes of the court, jurors and prosecutors” (emphasis added). What goes under the name of press relations might therefore be more accurately characterized as indirect jury tampering. “Trial by press” is a popular method for those defendants against whom the Bureau has a weak case.
The press is also used to create “newsworthy material.” The strategy is to generate interest by escalating the most mundane record-keeping and administrative inspections into full scale raids.
In July 1974, for example, a number of BATF and customs agents surrounded Jensen Custom Ammunition, a large-scale gun dealer in Tucson, Arizona. Agents entered the store, leaving one agent, armed with an automatic weapon, to maintain order in the parking lot. Employees were frisked, and all customers had to show identification before they were allowed to leave. Administrative records and a few guns were taken. No charges were ever filed.
An operation in June 1978, for the mundane purpose of handing out information on federal firearms laws at a gun show in San Jose, California, became notorious after agents made what amounted to a mass arrest of all attendees. The result is a $2.1 million lawsuit, which the Bureau has unsuccessfully attempted to settle out of court. Although its “educational” activity could have been quietly accomplished by two agents before the show was even open to the public, BATF insisted upon escalating it into a para-military operation, apparently for the benefit of the press.
Civil Rights Abuses
Even if BATF’S raids never resulted in tragedies-and the case of Ken Ballew, paralyzed by BATF agents, confirms that tragedies do occur-it should be obvious that there is considerable danger to the public inherent in such operations. The Bureau has given us enough examples of what is known in law enforcement as a strike-force mentality to suggest either a general policy or an attitude among individual agents favoring over-utilization of force and misdirection of resources. An examination of BATF publications, obtained through Freedom of Information requests and lawsuits, indicates that policy is as much to blame as any excesses on the part of individuals.