Post Investigation: The hidden life of guns

Oct 25, 2010

Bob's Gun Shop owner Robert Marcus will be online Monday, Oct. 25, at 1 p.m. ET to discuss the 65-year-old shop being one of the leading crime-gun sources in Virginia, with Norfolk police alone recovering 88 of its guns in 2008. Marcus says his store's traces are likely fed by Norfolk's demographics and the more than 32,000 guns the store has sold since 1998.

Post Investigation: The Hidden Life of Guns

I am Robert Marcus, owner of Bob's Gun Shop in Norfolk, Virginia, and I am here to answer any questions you might have regarding the Washington Post story on The Hidden Life of Guns

When you know so many of the guns you've sold have ended up killing and maiming people in crimes, why wouldn't you support registration of all guns and requiring gun owner's death and maiming liability insurance?

Thank you for writing this question; I was looking for something like this to use to debunk the notion of "crime guns."  Every gun that comes to the attention of  law enforcement is traced, and the only way a firearm can be traced through the Federal system is as a "crime gun."  So, a man dies and his wife asks the police to come get his guns out of the house.  They are traced as "crime guns," even though no crime took place.  A person who is charged with carrying a concealed weapon in Virginia will usually have his handgun confiscated and it will then be traced, again, becoming a "crime gun" even though the person has not (or might not) even been convicted of a crime.  That is why I am not too concerned with being considered a "crime gun" source.  The vast majority of these traces are nothing more than recovered stolen firearms or carry-type issues.

I am going to answer someone else's question about why firearms dealers are concerned about trace information being kept secret.  We are concerned that activists such as New York's mayor bloomberg will misuse this data to harm our businesses.  Virginia had to enact a law to prevent him from conducting his "investigations" down here without the involvement of our State Police.

Also,  I would like to thank the Washington Post and especially David Fallis for providing me with the opportunity to engage Post readers in this story, and I would urge Mr. Fallis to provide the public with the circumstances involving the 88 firearms traced back to us in 2008.  I believe the overwhelming majority will be nothing more than recovered stolen guns and carry-related issue guns.

Virginia gun dealers: Small number supply most guns tied to crimes

For the guns that were traced to a crime, what is the average length or time between the sale of the firearm and the time it was used in a crime? Was the person charged with the crime the original buyer of the firearm from you?

ATF considers "time-to-crime" to be within 3 years from the purchase.  As to your other question, I do not know.

Do you believe this publicity will send a message that, if I am a criminal and I want a gun, I should go to your store? Are you going to do anything different now that this message, even if unintentionally sent, may indeed have gone out, and presumably you are now aware this message is out there?

I doubt the people you are worried about are Washington Post readers.  As I've said before, we do all we can now. 

Aren't straw purchasers actually accessories "before the fact" to any crimes committed with the gun, under the current law? If so, a few "examples"' plus a reminder from the clerk might cause fewer straw purchases.

It is up to the local Commonwealth's Attorney to decide to prosecute such people.  Unfortunately, examples only last a short time.

How are you supposed to pre-screen someone that  may become a criminal at some time in the future? Couldn't you also get in trouble if I wanted to buy a gun, passed the government-mandated screening, and you still chose not to sell me a gun? I could cry racism/bigotry or whatever else and sue you.

Any business may refuse to provide service for any reason.  We often refuse customers who have alcohol on their breath, for example.

The Post article asserts that "more than 2,500" guns sold by Realco were traced the past 18 years. But the article does not compare that figure to your total amount of guns sold during the same period, which surely must be much larger. Would you be willing to estimate what that total is? People should understand that traced guns (which as you point out does not mean that they are used in crime) are a small fraction of all guns that are traded in honest commerce to law-abiding gun owners.

It would have to be well in excess of 50,000 firearms, as an educated guess.

A couple of years ago, I was driving in southern Mexico, where, at a military checkpoint, my car was thoroughly searched for illegal guns. There were none, of course, and the soldiers were quite polite. However, they then asked me where I was going, and advised me NOT to continue, as I would be on the road after dark before I got there, and bandits were a problem. My (polite) response was, "Now the bandits know that I am unarmed, thanks to you." Your thoughts.

There is a lot of wisdom in your thinking.  Same thing happened in Florida years ago...the criminals were targeting rental cars because they knew that most airline passengers would be unarmed.

If I were to walk into your store, and have all legitimate credentials, and I kept walking into your store every few days, how long could I keep this up? Would I be able to endlessly walk in and buy assorted guns every few days, or would this set off some warning you would act upon?

My answer to your first question is, "How much money do you have?"  Seriously, Virginia currently has a law that limits a person to one handgun purchase in a 30 day period.  Also, we have refused to sell people who have come in once a month to buy the exact same gun.  We do what we can, but do not think for a moment that people who have criminal intent will find a way; using different sales people or sending others in as straw purchasers.

In the Post yesterday the article said that the police chose NOT to prosecute a woman who made a straw purchase - the gun was later used in a murder. Since the police chose not to charge her with a crime would YOU sell her a gun next week?

If I knew the facts, I would not sell her a firearm.  She committed perjury when she lied on the Federal purchase form that she was the actual buyer.

Do you use criminal and racial profiling to determine if you will sell a gun? If not, why not? If perhaps 85 percent of your trace requests are for a particular profile of person, why not use this valuable information?

All firearms purchasers are screened through the Virginia State Police at the time of sale.  We absolutely do not profile racially.  If you can point out a criminal to me prior to my making the sale, I would refuse to make the sale.

Is there any way to use the same databases to check weapons seized in Mexico with the stores in Virginia and Maryland selling crime guns? I'm guessing we should see a high correlation. Any thoughts on doing additional investigation onto that topic?

You will have to ask Mr. Fallis, the writer of the story, this one.

I realize that most of the gun shops across this nation are honest businesses and do seek to prevent guns from becoming a part of the crime problem our cities face. Do you believe that we need to have a higher punishment for those that purchase firearms to then be handed or sold to criminals than is currently in our legal code? I am thinking that those that act as straw purchasers should be prosecuted for the same crimes as the criminals that use the guns that the straw purchaser has handed to the criminal. If the straw purchased handgun is used to commit a murder, then the purchaser should be tried as taking part in the murder.

Swift and sure is the term law enforcement uses.  Behavior is not changed when the punishment is not timely and severe enough to prevent future bad behavior.

I don't understand why the NRA and their ilk want to hide records. They should stand proud and trumpet their "success" of putting guns in virtually everyone's hands! That's what they want, after all. Guns for all. Honestly, in all truth, I don't get it. They should be out there enjoying their "success."

I believe I answered this in the first post.

Mr. Marcus, I have heard police officers say handguns should be sold in vending machines. I've heard citizens say only police and military should own guns. What would you change about the gun purchase process - if you could - as Burger King says - "Have It Your Way" ? How would people buy a handgun?

A lot less paperwork, that's for sure!  There must be a screening of a person's criminal history records.

What kind of behavior do you and your employees look for when trying to identify the straw purchasers? Are these people and their behavior as obvious as some of those interviewed make them to be?

While criminals may not be the smartest people in the world, they are often very clever and devious.  It is not always easy to know when a straw purchase is taking place.

Mr. Marcus, the trace data - even looked at only in Norfolk alone - makes it clear that your store is selling many guns to straw purchasers and traffickers who then transfer them directly to criminals and other prohibited purchasers. Given this record, and the damage your guns have done to families in your community, why haven't you adopted additional marketing/distribution safeguards like Wal-Mart has through the Responsible Firearms Retailer Partnership?

You sound like the ideal candidate for our new "Guess-the -Straw-Purchaser" position.  Candidates must have psychic ability.  Please forward your resume at once!

When I have to escort my customers out the front door with their firearm/ammunition purchase as Walmart does, it will be time to leave this business.

Thanks for the question.

Congratulations, sir, you and your staff run a great shop. My question is, having read the story, how accurate is the Post's research insofar as the number of "crime guns" being "traced" back to Virginia gun stores? What, in your opinion, constitutes a "crime gun"?

In my opinion, a crime gun would be when a handgun is used to commit a crime: robbery, abduction, homicide, etc.  Calling a recovered firearm a "crime gun" just helps create statistics.

So how easy is it, typicall, for someone to buy a gun?

Come to my store and we'll show you.  It takes about 20 minutes.  (More of an answer to follow, time permitting).

Bob, thanks for spending time with us in answering questions. If gun stores were liable for being the source of lawfully sold firearms, shall cities like D.C. and New York be liable for being the source of the criminals? After all, most criminals committed violent crimes with guns were from there.

You are trying to apply logic where it doesn't work.  You are right...just nothing will come of it.

You state you have sold over 30,000 guns. Approximately how much more is that compared to what the average store sells? I obviously ask so one may better judge if one of the reasons your store sells more guns police confiscate is because you sell more guns.

We have sold nearly 75,000 firearms since the enactment of the 1968 Gun Control Act.  We maintain those records, and a few years prior, and all are subject to trace requests.  As mentioned in the story, one of our competitors sold 900 guns in 2008 and had 72 traces against our 6,000+ sales and 88 traces. You are correct; the number of traces goes up with the increase in sales volume.

My uncle was an avid hunter and taught me how to shoot. He was very serious about safety and kept the guns locked at his hunting club. He NEVER allowed a gun in his home and was very vocal that handguns should NOT be allowed for private ownership. In his mind, the only reason to own a handgun was to kill a person/commit a crime. I'm curious how many people in the U.S. own handguns versus long guns. I'm also wondering how that compares to Canada where they have similar private ownership of guns, yet don't have nearly the same murder rate. Are we just a sick violent country? What gives?

We obviously didn't have the same uncle!

If guns are sold legally and paperwork/traces are done..why then punish all for the ones that do not follow the rules..and will this not make it harder for legal citizens to won fire arms?

The reality is that it is easier to punish the law-abiding than to deter a criminal.  Just my 2 cents.

Why aren't "straw purchases" against the law? For example, if it's found that person X bought the gun and then admits to giving it to person Y, why can't person X be arrested for conspiracy? Or why can't the store owners inform person X before buying the gun that she/he WILL be prosecuted for making a purchase for someone else? I know it wont solve the problem but it would be a deterrent. A lot of these WP gun articles talk about the police not even charging the person who originally bought the gun for someone else.

Straw purchases are against the law.  They carry a felony charge.

Can you think of any way to discourage straw-purchasers?

Let me know when you figure that out.  Unfortunately, these folks just don't know what they're doing in providing firearms to those who are ineligible to purchase.

Do you sell or transfer Title II weapons? If so, are you aware of any of them having been used in a crime?

We do sell Class III.  I do not know of any used in crime in Virginia or elsewhere.

Do you think the current purchase process is okay? What would the process be if you could have it your way? I've heard police say guns should be sold in vending machines and I've heard good citizens say only police and military should have guns.

One out of four people are delayed during the background check.  98% of those are eventually approved.  A Right delayed is a Right denied.  Again, my 2 cents.

What sort of legislation exists to hamper the sale of weapons to non-Americans that are shipping them to Mexico and other places? Thank you much for your expert opinion.

It is illegal in Virginia to sell "assault" weapons to non-citizens.

How did Bloomberg's detectives run stings on Virginia gun shops without violating our laws? Using a false name, address and presenting false IDs are felonies when buying a gun and the New York City police were far, far out of their jurisdiction.

Oh, they were committing felonies, in the name of getting others to do the same.  That is why we now have the Bloomberg Law in Virginia.  No more "investigations" from New York City without the consent and assitance of the Virginia State Police.

About what percent of those seeking to purchase guns do you decline to sell to?

1 or 2 percent

What do you think the benefit of a nationally recognized concealed carry program be in terms of firearm crimes?

It will no doubt lower the crime rate throughout the country.

Under Virginia law, if I have an extra gun that I bought years ago and that I now want to give to a resident alien, is it legal for him or her to accept it as a gift?

I am not 100% sure, but I would lean toward it being O.K.  How would he get it home?

How do you feel about possibly requiring gun owners to: 1. Pass some type of competency test before being allowed to purchase. 2. Be required to carry insurance for damage/injury. 3. Be held liable if they didn't take minimal precautions to keep the gun from falling into a criminal's hands? In every state in the union, we are required to pass a test to drive a car, carry some type of minimal liability insurance, and can be held responsible if we knowingly allow the car to be used to commit a crime. Why on earth is it so hard for the NRA and all gun owning americans to come to grips with similar requirements for gun ownership?

Because firearms ownership is a RIGHT, not a priviledge.

Are you familiar with Canada's firearms laws? If so, how different are they to the ones in the U.S.?

They are much more restricitve.  Contact the Canadian Embassy before attempting to take firearms into Canada.

Much more restricitve.  Contact the Canadian Embassy before attempting to take firearms into Canada.

I support your business. How can we honest citizens be helpful to you?

Thank you.  Join the NRA and support pro-2nd Amendment candidates for elective office.

Given the mayhem they cause, can you give a good reason to continue their sale?

What mayhem?  According to statistics, they are used in relatively few crimes.

Do you feel as though your business has been singled out for investigation?

No; not that paranoid.

How do you deal with the myriad of gun laws that vary from state to state, and sometimes within the same state?

We are required to follow the laws of Virginia, since that is where we are located.  People who live in other states are expected to follow their state's laws.

Bob, what are your thoughts on the gun show loopholes? I have been too many gun shows and seen people walking around with signs of what they have to sell. Do you think it would be unreasonable to require all private gun sales to go through a FFL?

The Gun Show Loophole is a slogan developed for the next stage of gun control.  If it ever passes, wait for the next slogan and a few more of your rights will disappear.

Why do you think anyone selling guns will give a straight answer to real statistics of the number of guns you sell getting into the wrong hands...even if it is lower than 20 percent of the guns you sell?

I give those in authority the benefit of the doubt until I can prove them incorrect.

Why do people think that a firearm "registry" will fix anything? If straw purchasers are buying the guns in the first place then the registry is wrong as soon as they leave the store. The only accurate records would be those of law-abiding gun owners.

Ask people in California and New York who were t0ld that their registered firearms would never be confiscated how they feel now.

If your store was in Montana, any guess as to what percentage of your sales would result in "crime guns"? I'm guessing that your clientele would probably be a little different.

What is a crime gun in Montana, anyway?

Thanks Bob for answering questions. Some people want to hold firearm retailers responsible when items they sell (legally) are used in a crime? Should this concept also apply to Williams-Sonoma if they sold a knife that was later used in a crime?

Absolute liability is absolutely ridiculous.

As a store owner, do you have any suggestions or thoughts on how straw purchases or follow-on illegal sales of guns might be better detected. In addition to clarifying the classification of gun traces as "crime guns", what changes in BATFE reporting would you like to see.

" what changes in BATFE reporting would you like to see?" I am not in a position to offer any suggestions to my good friends at the ATF, but I am sure they would thank me if I did.

This article suggests that gun dealers are knowingly supplying firearms to criminals. However, a more reasonable conclusion is that if weapons are sold in areas with high crime rates, a legitimately sold weapon will more likely be involved in a crime. How is this revelation newsworthy?

Hey, I just read newspapers.  I don't know how to print them or sell them!

so, if a terrorist buys a gun at a gun show without a background check and kills US citizens, that's ok? Please don't say it won't happen.

Of course it's not o.k.  Who said it was?

How is "crime" being defined in this case? I had understood that once you exclude the drug trade from the stats for handgun deaths (which, at the risk of sounding callous, is mostly criminals killing each other), most of the deaths weren't from robberies or muggings but from disputes between relatives or friends. Apparently a gun at home or on one's belt intended for protection is more likely to be used in the heat of an argument. I suspect that the "crime gun" definition fails to make a distinction. Would you agree that this is part of the problem?

I would agree that it is part of the problem.

I believe that a person should have the right to seek to own a gun, but I do not believe that everybody has the right to own a gun. Clearly there are people with mental conditions, criminal histories, etc., that shouldn't be allowed to buy a gun. Unfortunately, I think the background checks are so watered down that you couldn't possibly screen out every loon or thug that wants a gun. Instead, why can't we require people to pass some type of certification program and carry some type of insurance before they can buy? You have to pass a written test, eye exam and behind the wheel test to get a driver's license. Why does the NRA get so bent out of shape by the thought of such a thing for gun owners? Better training and education has to cut down on accidental deaths and maybe the insurance requirement would deter some nut jobs.

Sorry, Dumfries, I have been thinking about your question for some time but this forum and the time left are insufficient for me to answer.  Maybe next time.


Thanks, everyone, for the great questions!  I enjoyed this more than I should have!

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Robert Marcus
Robert Marcus is the owner of Bob's Gun Shop in Norfolk, Va.
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