Post Investigation: The hidden life of guns: Part III

Oct 26, 2010

James Cavanaugh, a former ATF special agent-in-charge, will be online Tuesday, Oct. 26, at 1 p.m. ET to discuss 'The Hidden Life of Guns,' a Post investigation series documenting the ways guns move through American society, from sales at retail dealers to crimes on city streets.

A Washington Post Investigation: The Hidden Life of Guns

Today: Part III: ATF's oversight limited in face of gun lobby

Cavanaugh was involved in some of the biggest cases of the last three decades including the D.C. sniper murders, the Unabomber, white supremacist Eric Rudolph, church bombings in the South and the deadly shootout at the Branch Davidian compound in Waco, Tex.

Good afternoon.  I'm Jim Cavanaugh, a retired ATF Special Agent in Charge.  I'm glad to be here and look forward to answering your questions.

I asked the owner of a gun shop if there was anything different he could do, and his answer was he already does all he can do. Let me ask you: is there anything more gun store owners can do that most are not doing?

The first thing, of course, is for gun shops to scrupulously maintain their records and follow the law.  In addition to that, they should make sure that all their sales people understand what straw sales are and how they happen.  I advocate large signs, which many dealers use, describing and discouraging straw sales.  We all count on dealers to ensure that their sales are lawful.  Great question.

Wouldn't a requirement to register all weapons with either cities or counties, and all data available on a national registry solve the problem? Whoever buys a weapon is responsible for it, to include preventing it from being stolen. If stolen, he has to report it as such. Those with a police record or a conviction should be barred from purchasing and owning weapons. Anybody caught with an unregistered weapon is subject to prosecution.

I am not an advocate of firearms registration, having spent almost 4 decades as a uniform police officer and federal agent.  I think it can be needlessly burdensome on citizens.  I prefer that we target criminals and criminal trafficking to promote the common weal and safety.  However, federal law and the Constitution allow states to form their own policies on gun registration - some states do.  Under federal law, the only registered firearms are machine guns, silencers, short-barreled rifles and shotguns, bombs, grenades, and other gangster-style weapons.  Those are more closely regulated by ATF.  Lawful, registered owners of these weapons rarely, if ever, use them in crime.  However, the federal law allows us to charge the criminal possession, sale, and transfer of these items.  Convicted felons are already barred from receiving and possessing firearms and we charge thousands of them each year.

Investigation:    The Hidden Life of Guns

One possible solution has been to give the director of the ATF the authority to ban any weapon that he/she deems as "unneccesarily dangerous." This would presumably include "assault weapons" like the AR-15 and handguns designed to fire an armor piercing bullet such as the FN Five Seven. Do you support such an initiative?

No, I don't think the Director should have the power to ban assault weapons.  I think that power should rest with the Congress.  The problem with the assault weapons ban is that it had good intentions, but in reality, it did not work.  Manufacturers were able to take off bayonets, muzzle extensions, pistol grips, and other designs on the gun and produce a cheaper gun that fired the same ammunition, at the same velocity with the same function.  This kind of ban really isn't going to help us fight crime.  I know it has a lot of supporters, and I believe that they are sincere in wanting to reduce violence, but I don't think this is the answer.  Armor piercing ammunition is already regulated under the law. 


I think a more realistic approach in fighting violence is to give us an actual gun trafficking statute, narrowly defined, so it really attacks only criminal gun traffic, and therefore would not be a burden on legitimate gun owners.  Policing a democracy requires support from the citizens to be effective - laws have to be seen as reasonable and just.

Will the "ATF Modernization Bill" finally let you guys use computers? Or will you still be stuck in the last century, trying to magically divine the intent of dealers who stack up violations? The drugstore where I buy my Sudafed has to keep track of inventory and records  of every purchase. Why is keeping inventory so onerous for gun dealers? Isn't keeping inventory just good business practice?

I think the Congress should give ATF the power to require firearms dealers to conduct an annual inventory.  It is not onerous, it protects us all, and it's just good business.  I was the Deputy Commander on the DC Sniper Case and the Bushmaster 223 Rifle (used by Muhammed and Malvo) was missing from a Tacoma Firearms Dealer's inventory.  Whether it was stolen, lost, or somehow misplaced, we don't know.  But dealers are required to keep a tight rein on their inventory and comply with regulations.  An annual inventory would help that.  I would hope that the Modernization Bill would allow the Tracing Center to move from the horse and buggy stage into the modern digital era.  I know opponents flog that as gun registration, but it is really just a record of the last retail sale.  It is already in the possession of the government and it makes sense to make it readily available for law enforcement purposes.  The common argument against it seems to be the "slippery slope of registration" - which can be the argument against everything.

I don't see that registration of a weapon is any more burdensome than the registration of a car. It's done once, when it's bought and not repeated until it's sold. Other countries do this without bringing down civilization (U.K. for instance).

I traveled to London years ago in my official capacity with ATF and spent a long time with the Metropolitan Police at Scotland Yard working on firearms and explosives issues.  The UK is a completely different society than the United States.  It dates back a couple of thousand years in history and its society developed in a different way.  It gave us great traditions like the Magna Carta and the Parliament, but it also gave us King George III, and we had some difficulty with him.  The UK is also much smaller in geography and population and has a different crime problem overall. 


I don't think firearms registration more than we have now is a good idea.  If we can focus our efforts on the crime, bolstering up the security of gun shops, stopping straw sales, and giving resources to ATF agents and police, then we will be able to do a better job.

Hi, I read a number of the comments on this article, enough to form a picture in my mind of gun enthusiasts as having the following beliefs: 1. The purpose of ATF is to infringe on gun owners' rights, so a more efficient and effective ATF would infringe those rights more. 2. The ATF isn't effective, but it shouldn't be reformed, but rather abolished. 3. Regulation of gun ownership has the sole intent of eventual gun confiscation. 4. The rights of legitimate gun owners always trump public safety. 5. They are very angry in their comments. I'd like to know how the current dilemma can be resolved. Are we doomed to live in a hyper-violent society dominated by armed ruffians?

I like to be an optimist on where America's going on crime issues.  We do have to find a balance.  In my almost four decades in law enforcement, we didn't harass citizens or try to take anyone's rights away.  Rather, we lived the Bill of Rights and stood in the breach many times to protect others' rights.  I talked to many who would want to infringe on the rights of others and dissuaded them from those causes.  I stood many times on the front porch of a run-down house with a screen door barely hanging by the hinge, and the only thing keeping me out was the 4th Amendment and my respect for the Constitution and Bill of Rights. 

Do you think an assault weapons ban would affect crime?

I don't think an assault weapons ban is effective against crime.  I answered in more detail above. 

Do you have a sense as to how significant an issue this is? And could you explain what's going on and how/if it should be remedied?

Gun trafficking to Mexico is the March of the Lilliputians who bring guns and ammo constantly across the Border in small amounts.  There are some large shipments, but most of the traffic is this constant movement.  There are many arguments about how many guns come from America to Mexico, but one thing we can be sure of is that many do. 


One thing that's left out of the discussion is that civil society has broken down in Mexico in some cities.  Citizens of Mexico then want to acquire firearms in the U.S. for the protection of themselves and their families as well.  The answer is more inspections at the Border, beefed-up ATF agents who are working cartel traffic and their sources.  It behooves all Americans to have a safe and stable neighbor in Mexico.  We have to support the Mexican government's efforts to damp down the cartels by doing all we can on this side.  There is no silver bullet, as Churchill said, all that can be offerred is "blood, toil, tears, and sweat."  But you need the resources to do it.

"I am not an advocate of firearms registration, having spent almost 4 decades as a uniform police officer and federal agent. I think it can be needlessly burdensome on citizens." I'm not really following. How is registration "needlessly burdensome"? For example, I have to register my car and I've never once seen it described as a needlessly burdensome on citizens" to do so. I read today's story, about the difficulty of tracking guns, because there is no registration, that the employees of the ATF have to pour over piles and piles of handwritten documents, hoping they are legible, accurate, and not destroyed by water, mildew, or chewed be rodents. My hat is off to them, because I am sure it is a thankless and very difficult job. Wouldn't registration go a long ways to helping these ATF employees do their job?

We don't need registration to modernize and computerize the records at the Tracing Center.  Those are the records of the last retail sale from out of business gun dealers, and would be a reasonable step in fighting crime.  Some national registration of the some 300 million guns in circulation would be an almost impossible task, at best.  It would be very burdensome creating some Kafkaesque bureaucracy that wouldn't stop all gun crime.  Working together is the answer.  Keep your principles but work toward reasonable solutions.

Given that NRA lobbyists have such influence on the mission of the ATF, do you ever see a balance between the constitutional right to bear arms and maintaining gun control? Case in point -- no requirement for inventory by a gun store = no gun control!

Lobby groups represent citizens and will be ever present in a democracy.  I don't want to live in a police state where unfettered police powers can dominate citizens either.  However, we all can hold to our principles and have a modicum of movement to make society safer toward the center.  Let's see what happens in the future.  I disagree with the position that ATF should not modernize gun tracing, yet I thought the law that the NRA supported allowing people to keep their guns in a natural disaster was well thought out.  Comprise is necessary sometimes.

Has the ATF, or its predecessors, ever attempted to compile statistics about firearms used in crimes that have entered or been manufactured in the U.S. illegally? Keeping track of legally sold weapons is one thing, but what about the guns that are smuggled in across the border from Mexico or Canada, or hidden in container shipments from overseas or even built clandestinely in the U.S.?

ATF makes seizures of foreign source guns from time to time.  However, America is a large manufacturer of firearms and a large legal importer of firearms so there are plenty here.  The gun traffic would be more going out of the country than it would be coming in.  Nevertheless, it's an important issue and guns can be hidden in shipments, mislabeled, machine guns described as rifles, and all sorts of other criminal acts.  The Tracing Center does have lots of statistics of guns recovered by police from foreign countries, when those are referred to the ATF Divisions, we work them aggressively. 

The student who massacred 32 students had a driver's license that showed he either lived in Centreville, well out his area, or a dorm complex. Should the store owner sell to a known college student who is prohibited by his college from carrying or storing the weapon on campus?

Virginia Tech was such an awful tragedy.  The crux of the Virginia Tech case was the fact Cho had some mental problems that weren't recognized and dealt with.  He was a resident of Virginia and therefore his residency status alone would not bar him from buying a pistol.  The firearms dealer would have been presented with a valid ID, completed a NICS check, and transferred the firearm in his view lawfully.  But it begs the larger question of those who have been adjudicated as mental defectives  acquiring firearms.  I had a case in Alabama where 2 police officers were killed by a mental defective but the computer systems did not show his legal disability to buy firearms.  States have picked up the tempo on this now and are working with the courts ensuring that those legally barred from buying guns will be stopped at the point of purchase. 

I'm not sure if this relevant to this discussion, but what is the safest way to dispose of firearms that are part of an inheritance? They have been in the family for years so I'm sure there isn't "proper" paperwork with them.

It depends on the type of guns you're talking about.  If they are pistols and rifles and you need some assistance in proper sale, you can take them to a local firearms dealer who can buy them from you or help you arrange a sale.  You could also legally sell your collection yourself.  Federal law only requires that machine guns and certain other weapons be registered.  If you have those, you want to contact ATF as there are provisions to pass on such legally registered firearms in an intestate bequest.  You also must check with your state authorities if you live in a state that does require some sort of registration.  This type of situation happens all the time and law enforcement officers and/ or firearms dealers can help you properly deal with those weapons.

Is the voice of gun rights over-amplified in America? I grew-up hunting and I'm concerned that my safety is at stake when people step forward to defend exotic weapons that have a narrow utility. Do you ever get crazy calls or threats from gun rights activists.?

After almost 4 decades as a cop, I got crazy calls from everybody.  Firearms are tools used by our law enforcement, our military, our citizens to keep us safe and free, and for sporting purposes.  Loud voices don't bother me - it's the First Amendment in action. 

Someone yesterday equated owning a gun to driving a vehicle -- i.e, requirement for passing a competency test before owning a gun, getting liability insurance, being held liable when the gun is used in a crime, etc. Do you think this is the right approach?

No, I don't think we need to have competency tests or liability insurance just to own a firearm.  We all know that if you shoot someone, lots of lawsuits will be filed already, and under our current laws everyone is already held responsible for their actions.  The overwhelming, overwhelming majority of gun owners are not involved in any type of crime.  Rather, it is the criminals who misuse and victimize that we need to target and focus on.  I am for stiff penalties for gun crime and violent crime with a gun, tougher gun traffic statutes, and more resources for ATF and the police. 

What good does it really do to have firearms traceable? How often does traceability really prevent crime? A few times, maybe? After all, by the time the ATF steps into the picture, a crime has already been committed. In a few cases, a chain of custody may lead back to a criminal gun dealer, but more than likely it leads back to a stolen gun. The situation in Mexico is a good example. My understanding is that a majority of modern rifles used by the cartels are traceable back to the U.S. as former U.S. government supplied weapons, not civilian manufactured weapons. What good is traceability in preventing crime?

Firearms tracing is an awesome tool against violent crime.  Let me just use one example, although there are scores:  3 people were murdered at a convenient store in my Division.  Homicide detectives asked for our help in tracing a firearm left at the scene.  An ATF agent spent the whole night at the scene with the Detectives, working the leads and tracing the gun.  That trace led him to a woman who lived more than 100 miles away.  The Agent drove up there, located the woman at a restaurant, and asked her about the pistol as she was the last retail purchaser.  She stated she'd traded the gun at a gun show for another gun that was in her car.  The Agent asked to see it and ran the serial number against the stolen gun's database in NCIC.  It came back as stolen from a robbery and murder in a nearby state.  The woman was confronted and confessed to being involved with her boyfriend who had committed that murder and the murder of the 3 people the night before.  In addition, she outlined many other assaults and robberies.  The killer was convicted and sentenced to prison.  This case was solved solely due to the gun trace. 

First, thank you for your service and your position on the issues raised so far. Isn't the real problem that we have an idea that if we regulate and control guns enough, we can stop violence, when in actuality we can never stop violence because there will always be crazies intent on doing harm? More laws only affect those who are law-abiding. The criminals and the crazies [are] already acting with total disregard to the rules.

I understand your sentiments on it.  But any modern civilization requires that we make an effort to keep us safe.  If we made that argument, for example, on traffic laws, why should we even try to enforce them.  After all, there will always be speeders and there will always be accidents.  The answer of course is that there is less accidents and injuries, and the highways are safer because the laws are enforced.  The same is true of gun crime.  ATF and its police task force officers charged more than 10,000 people last year with crimes.  We must stop a gangbanger with a stolen gun, out in a car in the middle of the night, out to commit a crime.  He's the next killer, not the last killer.  The same is true for convicted felons or other prohibited persons who are violating the gun laws.

Thank you everyone.  Great questions.  I have enjoyed the chat.

Check this link for a final discussion tomorrow with the writers of the series:   The Hidden Life of Guns

Thank you.

In This Chat
James Cavanaugh
Former Special-Agent-In-Charge James Cavanaugh retired this year after more than 30 years in the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives. He was involved in some of the biggest cases of the last three decades including the D.C. sniper murders, the Unabomber, white supremacist Eric Rudolph, church bombings in the South and the deadly shootout at the Branch Davidian compound in Waco, Texas. Cavanaugh was one of the the ATF officials leading the DC sniper investigation and he was one of the ATF negotiators during the standoff with Branch Davidian leader David Koresh. A New Jersey native and the son of a firefighter, Cavanaugh was a former Florida sheriff's deputy before joining the ATF where, for the last 12 years, he headed the agency's Nashville office.
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