By Dale Liesch and Jason Johnson
At his home in Montgomery, Allen Daniels keeps copious records of previous gun sales in several cardboard boxes, even though he doesn’t have to. In his mind, “it’s better to be safe than sorry.”
That mindset protected the gun show promoter, collector and hobbyist years ago after a gun he sold in Mobile was found among the items taken from a murder victim. Daniels had sold the victim a gun, which he says the police later found in the suspect’s possession along with another weapon that was actually used in the crime.
“If the gun is stolen and confiscated and they start running a trace on it, it’s going to come to me and they’re going to ask, ‘well, what’d you do?’” Daniels said. “And you can say, ‘I don’t remember, or give me some time because I’ve got cardboard boxes to go through.’”
Daniels was in town last weekend for the Abba Shriners’ biannual gun show in West Mobile. When attendees first arrived at the temple on Hitt Road, they were met with a long line snaking underneath an awning from the building.
Extra staffing was in place to deal with what was expected to be a large crowd, which one organizer attributed to recent executive orders on gun sales President Barack Obama unveiled just days before the event.
In his final year in the Oval Office, Obama detailed a multi-point plan Jan. 5 to “curb gun violence” in the country — one his political opponents say bypassed Congress by taking unconstitutional executive action.
In the wake of recent mass shootings and terrorist attacks both at home and abroad, gun sales in the last six months have been higher than at any time since 2007, according to the FBI. In anticipation of Obama’s executive order, sales saw another spike ahead of the gun show in Mobile.
“We staffed up for it,” Shrine gun show committee member Bill Van Hook said, as visitors hustled past him with firearms in tow. “The last time Obama started making noise about gun control we had people wrapped around this building, and so when he started rattling the sabers again, we decided we better have all of our folks on board.”
On Saturday, the Shriners’ gun show — which serves as a fundraiser for the organization’s hospitals around the country — featured all types of firearms. Everything from handguns to flintlocks and semi-automatic rifles were laid on tables and available for purchase.
Serving those visiting the show were several vendors ranging from private collectors to licensed dealers, both of which have been the target of one of the more controversial of Obama’s executive actions.
One particular measure — aiming to address the “gun show loophole” — would expand the definition of those who are “engaged in the business” of selling guns, which could limit those who sell guns without a federal license and without going through the National Instant Criminal Background Check System (NICS) maintained by the FBI.
Currently, private sales between two individuals are legal and can be conducted without a background check in person or online, but only if the sale is not part of a business enterprise and the seller isn’t making a profit.
Though no specific change has been detailed, Obama said last week “the federal government will issue guidance” on the matter. The administration later released a statement saying the “quantity and frequency of sales” would be a factor, but also added there would be “no specific threshold number of firearms purchased or sold that triggers the licensure requirement.”
That ambiguity left some worried that even individuals selling one or two guns might be required to conduct a background check under a revised definition. Yet those opposed to the president’s plan, like Mobile County Sheriff Sam Cochran, say there are already laws on the books to address repeat gun sellers attempting to circumvent background checks.
“I appreciate that the president is trying to make a difference in mass shootings, but we don’t have that problem around here and we certainly don’t have a problem that’s growing out of these trade shows,” Cochran said. “What we have is a problem with guns getting into the hands of the mentally ill, and that’s something the federal government already has the authority to take action on.”
Tracking guns in Mobile
While the merits of more rigorous gun laws can be debated, the prevalence of firearms in the U.S. and particularly in Alabama cannot. According to a survey compiled by CBS News last year, Alabama ranks seventh among the “most armed” states, with 20 guns for every 1,000 residents and more than 96,744 registered firearms altogether.
The Mobile County Sheriff’s Office reported there are currently 50,257 people licensed to carry concealed handguns in Mobile County. Like gun sales, that number, too, has seen a dramatic increase over the past year and generated more than $1 million in permit fees for the MCSO.
In 2015 alone, 9,435 new permits were issued — a 42 percent increase in first-time permit applicants. Of those applicants, 434 were denied pistol permits, about half of them due to “public safety” concerns.
Cochran said that proves the system is working, adding that lawful gun owners aren’t the problem.
“Around here, generally guns used in crimes are stolen ones that are passed around by criminals,” Cochran said. “Anytime somebody is arrested or commits a crime that has a gun permit from the MCSO, it’s usually brought to my attention, and that’s a rarity.”
But while legal weapons are easy to track, unregistered weapons are not.
Every year the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives compiles “firearms traces” requested by local law enforcement. Typically, those traces are requested to backtrack where a gun used in a crime originated.
In 2014, the ATF processed almost 6,000 traces from Alabama, including 660 from Mobile. Those numbers were the third-highest statewide behind Birmingham and Huntsville.
Cochran added unregistered weapons are also tracked by the number reported stolen, but in those cases he said “more than half of the victims” haven’t memorized the serial numbers needed to effectively trace a stolen weapon.
Guns, mental health and politics
As they have with previous efforts, GOP leaders and gun rights groups have criticized Obama’s plan. The executive actions will almost certainly face challenges in court, and most of the Republican frontrunners in the presidential race have already vowed to overturn any changes.
“We all want to stop gun violence in America — every Democrat and every Republican. The question is, how do you do that?,” U.S. Rep. Bradley Byrne (R-Alabama) told Lagniappe. “The president thinks you do that by taking guns away from law-abiding citizens, and most Democrats agree. Republicans say, ‘it’s not a gun problem, it’s a problem with mentally ill people who aren’t getting the care they need when they need it.’”
Last week, Byrne made the national media rounds discussing his reaction to the president’s proposals. Like many, he calls Obama’s plan “unconstitutional,” saying it “bypassed the legislative process” to implement changes Congress has already voted down.
Byrne believes none of the proposed changes would help prevent mass shootings, adding that all of the recent shootings were carried out with guns “bought from a licensed gun dealer that performed a background check.”
In short, Obama’s plan mostly focuses on the NICS. It expanded the definition of the gun sellers who are required to use it, added 230 new FBI agents to assist with background checks and expanded what information the FBI can collect for the system.
Obama’s plan also addresses concerns over mental health care by including a $500 million appropriation to expand access. Byrne said that is the type of proposal he would support, but “only as part of a larger overhaul” of the mental health care system.
“I’m not going to put $500 million into a policy that’s not working,” Byrne said, noting he is currently co-sponsoring a complete mental health care bill with U.S. Rep. Tim Murphy (R-Pennsylvania). “If the President was serious about mental health, he’d work with us on that bill.”
Though he supports increased funding for mental health programs, Byrne did take exception to another part of Obama’s plan authorizing the Social Security Administration to add information about beneficiaries with mental illness to the NICS — something he described as a “a total lack of due process.”
Currently, the FBI has access to public court records when reviewing submissions to the NICS. Those records include a person’s criminal history and whether or not they’ve been committed or declared mentally ill in a court of law.
Byrne, an attorney, acknowledged those records are public, but said he believes going through the Social Security Administration gives the federal government access to information that has previously been confidential. He also said it provides “no opportunity for any rebuttal.”
Reaction from retailers, hobbyists
In recent years, the gun control debate has evoked passionate responses from people on both ends of the political spectrum and the issue seems to receive particular emphasis during an election year.
Though he doesn’t have a problem with the increasing number of new applicants, Cochran said he found it “strange” that concerns about expanded background checks would prompt a rush to get a concealed carry permit.
“The permit has nothing to do with owning a gun,” he said. “But most people are fearful the law is going to change, or that the law will change allowing them to possess guns. It just gets all spun out of control.”
Last week, GOP presidential hopeful and Texas Sen. Ted Cruz featured the phrase “Obama wants your guns” prominently on his campaign website. However, as he and other GOP leaders have responded quickly and vehemently to Obama’s plan to curb gun violence, the gun retailers and hobbyists who spoke with Lagniappe didn’t seem nearly as concerned.
Jay Manley, who was leaving the Shriners show with a semi-automatic, military-style rifle slung over his shoulder, called the executive orders “garbage” and said they would do very little. Manley added that the president should “focus his efforts toward other things, not this.”
“I don’t think much will happen with it,” he said.
Allen Daniels called the planned measures a “restating of a gun control act from 1968,” saying it re-emphasizes the enforcement of gun laws already on the books, but would likely do little to change what he or other hobbyists and collectors are allowed to do at gun shows.
In fact, currently the stipulations for a federal firearms license specifically address private sales at gun shows — something clearly written on the application for a license.
“If you fill out the form for a federal firearms license, when you get down to the bottom, it asks if you’re going to sell only at gun shows,” Daniels said. “If you say ‘yes’ it says ‘stop.’ Then you go on down and it asks ‘are you going to make a profit on the sale of firearms?’ If you say ‘no’ it says ‘stop.’”
Hobbyists can’t apply for access to the NICS, Daniels said, because they’re not considered dealers.
“Obviously there’s no way to do a NICS background check, because if you do not have a NICS number you cannot access the background check and the only way to get a NICS number is to be a [federal firearms license] holder,” he said.
While Daniels admits the terminology is confusing, he said to his knowledge a collector or hobbyist is still allowed to “dispose” of guns at a gun show without being considered a dealer. The law requires dealers and sellers with storefronts at gun shows to do background checks on buyers.
“Even after all of this, that elusive little demon known as the ‘gun show loophole’ can’t be caught because it don’t exist,” Daniels said. “It’s a political tool. The law allows that to happen.”
Although they’re not required to do background checks, private sellers are regulated through two provisions. One, Daniels said, requires gun show customers to prove they are old enough to purchase a gun. A buyer must also prove they live in the same state as the seller.
“I am selling a personal collection that I’ve amassed over 50-plus years. If I don’t feel good, I don’t sell a person a gun,” Daniels said during Saturday’s show. “I just turned away two sales right there because one guy lived in Mississippi and another lived in Tennessee. I can’t sell to them. I can’t do it.”
Daniels also keeps a record of everyone he sells to, and claims many other private sellers do the same.
“Now, personally, I don’t sell a firearm to anyone that I don’t see their ID,” he said. “I see their driver’s license and ask them ‘are you entitled to purchase a firearm?’ Most of them have concealed carry permits.”
Van Hook said a number of vendors brought laptops to the show on Saturday to process background checks on the spot. Depending on the gun show, Daniels said from 40 percent to 50 percent of vendors will be licensed dealers, who legally have to treat a show like an extension of their brick-and-mortar businesses.
However, for licensed dealers at gun shows and in stand-alone storefronts, the new executive orders don’t carry much weight. Jeff Stone, owner of Stone Arms in Mobile, said he already processes the ATF 44-73 form on any customer who comes in to buy a firearm.
Customers fill out the ATF form and then go through a NICS background check, a process that typically takes less than 20 minutes, according to Stone. From there, Stone said, sellers get response from the NICS with three options: proceed, delay or denial.
A denial means the person is prohibited from owning a firearm, usually due to a felony conviction. Stone said a delay means there something on an individual’s record that merits further research, which is handled by the FBI agents managing the NICS database.
According to Stone, “a delay” can be prompted by something as simple as getting “arrested at Mardi Gras 15 years ago,” clarifying that the nature of misdemeanor offenses isn’t disclosed to sellers ordering a background check.
All in all, Stone said he feels like the system that’s already in place is effective.
“There are laws, there are rules, there are procedures already in place that protect,” Stone said. “It doesn’t matter how much money you have. You could be FBI, CIA, KGB, it doesn’t matter, we’re still doing a background check on you. No one is exempt from it.”