.Dealing In Death

One in eight guns sold at Trader Sports eventually ends up with the police. The feds have been trying to shut the San Leandro store for decades, but it and its owner may dodge the bullet once again.

The only sign in late May that Trader Sports was embroiled in a fierce fight with the feds was the flurry of bright orange “Price Reduced for Quick Sale” tags affixed to everything with a trigger. Otherwise, it was business as usual: The aisles were crammed with dudely types trolling for fishing tackle and firepower. Neat rows of chrome and steel weaponry gleamed under the countertop glass. Prominently displayed on the sales counter were stacks of a slim volume titled How to Own a Gun and Stay Out of Jail.

It’s a lesson too few of the store’s customers took to heart.

According to the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms, the San Leandro sporting goods store is the nation’s second-biggest source of crime guns — that is, weapons either acquired or used illegally. Last year, law enforcement agencies traced 447 crime guns to Trader Sports. There were 481 traces in 2004 and 496 in 2003. That’s more than one a day.

Gun-control advocates have long considered Trader Sports a rogue dealer, so they were rooting for the ATF this summer when it finally yanked the firearms license of owner Anthony Cucchiara after years of investigations and legal proceedings. The agency cited a litany of record-keeping violations — most spectacularly, that more than 1,700 guns claimed by the shop were missing from the store’s inventory. The ATF also recorded 431 irregularities involving the forms customers must fill out before purchasing a firearm, which are meant to screen out prohibited buyers such as minors, felons, drug users, and the mentally ill, and to prevent so-called “straw sales,” in which a person legally eligible to buy a gun fills out the paperwork for someone who isn’t. After concluding that Trader Sports was willfully violating federal law, the ATF revoked Cucchiara’s license. By June 1, all of the orange-stickered guns had to be gone — and gone they were.

But the shootout isn’t likely to end there.

Trader Sports is still open, and Cucchiara is suing to restore his license to sell firearms. It’s not his first battle with the ATF. The agency tried to shut him down over similar violations in the 1970s, but he won that round. Cucchiara declined to comment for this story, but he and his attorney contend in court papers that the store keeps proper records but is being harassed by improper inspections, and that its high number of crime-gun traces stem not from wrongdoing but its high overall sales volume.

True, Trader Sports sells a lot of guns, and even the ATF will agree that high sales volume can mean a high number of gun traces. True, weapons legally sold to eligible purchasers are sometimes later used in crimes — after all, store clerks are not mindreaders who can predict customers’ intentions. And true, legally acquired guns can change hands after leaving a shop, either through resale or theft.

But it’s also true that government regulations designed to limit gun sales to the law-abiding seem to work pretty well for most stores. There are nearly 55,000 federally licensed firearms dealers in the United States, and during the last year for which the ATF released such data, 86 percent of them had no crime guns traced to them. By contrast, during the last three years, one out of every eight guns sold by Trader Sports was traced.

They don’t travel far. Most turn up in Oakland, Richmond, and San Francisco. But if you want to know how they’ve been used, you’ll probably never find out. Thanks the gun industry and its friends in the Bush administration, in 2004 it became illegal for the ATF to publicly release gun-trace data. ATF employees are barred from even talking about the fact that they can no longer release gun-trace data. A bill before Congress this year would further limit disclosure — even to law enforcement in some cases.

The firearms industry has everything to gain by blurring the public’s view of who makes, distributes, and sells the weapons that are most frequently linked to crime: it makes it harder for victims’ families to file civil suits, harder for advocates to quantify the need for new gun control and manufacture laws, and harder for residents to know which stores are arming their local criminal element.

After all, a gun’s journey from sales counter to police evidence room is rarely a delightful story. In each of the following three cases, a person who shouldn’t have been able to buy a gun had someone else buy one for him at Trader Sports. Each then soon used that weapon to kill someone. Each was convicted of murder. Each case is documented enough that the story can be told without aid from the now-muzzled ATF.

Store attorney Malcolm Segal declined an opportunity to review and comment on each of these cases, offering only a general statement on his client’s history of frequent crime-gun traces: “In none of those cases has anyone shown that the firearm was improperly sold by Trader Sports or that Trader Sports believed that the person who was acquiring it was other than the person who could do so under the law.”

Perhaps he’s never heard of Larry Ellingsen.

Meet the Poly Tech AKS 7.62 Semi-Automatic Assault Rifle

In December of 1988, Sharon and Larry Ellingsen were returning home to Newark after celebrating their 29th wedding anniversary at Trader Vic’s in San Francisco. As they exited the Bay Bridge onto Interstate 880, they noted that the car behind them was weaving erratically. It was one of the last conversations they would have.

Moments later, Sharon heard a loud bang and saw her husband’s body slump forward and his hands come off the wheel. Blood and brains spattered her and the rear seats. She called Larry’s name, but he didn’t respond. The car veered dangerously, and Sharon grabbed the steering wheel, removed Larry’s foot from the accelerator, guided the car to the shoulder, and stopped it with the emergency brake. She took his pulse, but felt nothing. She leapt from the car and waved for help.

One of the cars that sped past her contained her husband’s killer. He was nineteen-year-old Oakland drug dealer Darryl Poole, and he was armed with a Poly Tech AKS 7.62 semi-automatic assault rifle. Poole was driving four friends home after a day drinking and playing basketball in San Francisco, and as they crossed the bridge, a girl in the car complained that she had to use the bathroom. Poole promised to find an exit, but she continued to fuss. The more she complained, the more irritated he became with the traffic. Poole focused his wrath on the Ellingsens’ gray Honda Prelude, announcing that he would “make those motherfuckers speed up.” While the girl held the wheel, Poole unrolled his window, slid the rifle barrel between it and the mirror, and fired one round through the Prelude’s rear windshield, striking Larry in the back of the skull and killing him almost instantly.

It didn’t take long for the police to make an arrest — after the shooting hit the TV news, someone who knew Poole tipped off the cops. It didn’t take long to find the murder weapon, either. Poole told police that a friend had bought a gun for him at Trader Sports. Police recovered both the weapon and a sales receipt made out to the friend. At trial, Poole admitted to shooting the gun, but claimed it was an accident, that he’d intended to shoot into the air. The jury didn’t buy it, and he was sentenced to twenty years to life.

That wasn’t enough for Sharon Ellingsen. In 1989, based on Poole’s admission to the police that he’d had someone else buy his weapon for him, she filed a wrongful-death suit against Trader Sports, claiming that it had negligently sold the gun used to kill her husband. The suit alleged that Poole had gone into Trader Sports with some friends to buy an assault weapon nearly two months earlier. The suit claimed that he and his friends were intoxicated when they came into the store, which alone should have been enough to prevent a sale, and that the clerk did not question Poole’s sobriety or ask why he wanted such a dangerous weapon. Under the Gun Control Act, a store must obtain ID for every gun buyer, but Ellingsen’s attorneys argued that although one of his friends produced the ID and filled out the paperwork, Poole chose the gun, handled it, paid for it, and that it was handed to him. Clearly, they argued, Poole was the real buyer and this was an illegal sale.

In 1991, Trader Sports’ insurance company settled out of court with Sharon Ellingsen for roughly $400,000, but the shop never admitted wrongdoing, saying only that if a straw sale had occurred, the store clerk was “reasonably unaware of that fact” and had believed the gun was for Poole’s friend. At the time, Cucchiara told newspapers that the settlement was simply “an economic decision” and that he would have preferred to go to court.

Sharon Ellingsen declined to comment for this story, saying that she’d already commented enough fifteen years ago. Indeed, at the time she was an outspoken advocate of holding dealers responsible for illegal sales. “Naive as I was when I went into that lawsuit,” she told Muckraker magazine shortly after the settlement, “I was hoping to put a padlock on Trader’s door.”

Breaking the Rules

That suit was neither the first nor last time the store has been prodded into a settlement. As the Brady Center to Prevent Gun Violence put it in a May special report on the store’s turbulent history, “Anthony Cucchiara has been charged with breaking firearms laws regulating gun dealers for almost as long as those laws have existed.”

Trader Sports opened in 1958, a more lax era for gun shops. Dealers were required to be federally licensed and to record the names and addresses of gun buyers, but it was not until 1968, as the nation grieved the assassinations of Martin Luther King Jr. and John F. Kennedy, that Congress passed the Gun Control Act, mandating the comprehensive licensing system used today. Among other provisions, the act established age limits, restricted who could buy a gun, required guns to be marked with serial numbers, and set the standards for dealers’ record-keeping.

Within two years, Trader Sports had racked up reprimands that sound awfully similar to the ATF’s current complaints. In 1970 and 1972, the store received “irregularities statements” documenting hundreds of problems including sales to ineligible purchasers and faulty bookkeeping. By 1973, the store was put on notice that future violations would be considered willful, and in 1978 the ATF denied Cucchiara’s license renewal. He appealed all the way up to the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals, where the court ruled against him in 1981, noting that investigations had unveiled even more record-keeping violations — more sales to prohibited purchasers, more bookkeeping problems, and two hundred guns missing from inventory.

Cucchiara lost that fight, but by then he’d taken a different tack.

In 1979, Everett Studley, a longtime employee, applied for a license, saying that he was taking over the business. With Cucchiara’s help, he formed Studley Arms, Inc. and was granted a license as the company’s sole proprietor. But the following year, the ATF refused to renew Studley’s license, alleging that he was no more than Cucchiara’s “alter ego” — a way for him to continue doing business without his own license.

Cucchiara then filed a $5 million civil-rights lawsuit against the Department of the Treasury, which oversees the ATF. Although a federal judge agreed that Studley was “a subterfuge to allow Mr. Cucchiara to improperly continue in the firearm business,” in 1983 the two sides came to a somewhat curious agreement. The ATF allowed Cucchiara to regain a firearms license if he met certain conditions: that Studley surrender his license, that the corporation’s name be changed to Trader Sports, Inc., that Cucchiara be named president, and that the shop be closed for 45 days. Cucchiara also had to concede that his license had not been renewed in 1979 because of inadequate record-keeping, and promise to follow all regulations in the future.

But the shop’s commitment to responsible business practices continued to be questioned, first with the Ellingsen suit in 1991, and then in 1999, when the store was named in a massive deceptive trade practices lawsuit filed by a coalition of California local governments, including Alameda and San Francisco counties, as well several East Bay cities. The suit accused dozens of firearms manufacturers, industry associations, and distributors, including Trader Sports, of creating a public hazard through “knowingly and recklessly” marketing handguns in a way that circumvented the law and facilitated their use in crime. In 2003, Trader Sports again settled without admitting wrongdoing, promising to uphold a long list of preventive measures, such as training employees to recognize and deny straw sales, and requiring them to ask all purchasers why they wanted a gun and whether they were buying it for someone else.

Yet as soon as that wave of trouble receded, another one was rolling in. During inspections in 2000, 2002 and 2003, ATF inspectors chronicled the violations that led to this summer’s license revocation. The 2003 inspection was particularly egregious — that’s when the ATF tallied the 1,700 missing guns and the 431 problems with sales transaction forms. The shop also allegedly failed to respond promptly and accurately to gun-trace requests. For example, although gun dealers are required to keep records of all acquisitions and sales, Trader Sports told police it had no record at all of a Mossberg twelve-gauge shotgun which was recovered from the bedroom of an Oakland heroin dealer, and no record of a 9mm Bryco pistol confiscated from a fourteen-year-old student at a San Pablo junior high. Federal agents said they found records of both guns using the shop’s own computer system.

After the first two inspections, Cucchiara signed an acknowledgment of the violations, but after the third, the ATF went after his license. A year of hearings followed before the agency issued a final revocation notice last December.

Cucchiara responded by suing US Attorney Alberto Gonzales to halt the revocation, arguing that the ATF was unfairly targeting his shop, that their inspections had uncovered only “hypertechnical” violations, that the store’s high number of gun-trace requests reflected only its high sales volume, and that its failure to respond to trace requests was often because of errors made by the person requesting the trace. A federal judge denied the injunction, and upheld the June 1 revocation date.

Thirty-six years had passed since the ATF lodged its first complaint against the shop. The response from local gun-control advocates was: Finally. “We’re delighted that Trader Sports has been closed down,” said Griffin Dix, president of the Alameda county chapter of the antigun group Million Mom March. Dix, whose fifteen-year-old son was accidentally shot by a friend, believes that closing the store will help curb crime in the area. “Anything you can do to make it more difficult for a felon or a kid who is considering using a gun to get a gun helps,” he said.

Meet the .40-Caliber Glock Semi-Automatic Pistol

Jimmie Johnson was a kid who got a gun.

In May of 1994, the nineteen-year-old Hayward resident was on his way to his sister Carol’s apartment to help her move out after an ugly fight with her boyfriend, Anthony Johnson. As Carol later told the police, her relationship with her boyfriend had been troubled and sometimes violent. Earlier that afternoon, he’d been drinking and aggressive. Carol fled crying to her mother’s house and asked for help packing.

The family rode back to Carol’s boyfriend’s apartment in a three-car procession: Carol’s mom, Rosalie Pollard, drove the first car; Carol and a friend followed in the second; and her brother Jimmie rode in the third with two buddies.

By all accounts, Jimmie was a bright, well-liked, and responsible young man. He had no criminal or drug use record, he held a job at a computer warehouse, played football, and studied at Chabot College, and was about to transfer to the University of Washington to play ball for them. He had a close relationship with his mother, and even as a kid had tried to be the “man of the house” to his mom and sisters after his parents’ divorce. But he also had a .40-caliber Glock semi-automatic pistol stashed in the glove box.

Carol’s boyfriend, Anthony, was home. Because he and Jimmie had bristled at each other before, the brother and his friends waited outside. The women went inside to help pack. Not long afterward, Pollard got into an argument with Anthony. She stepped out onto the walkway in front of the apartment and called to her son for help.

Jimmie grabbed the gun from the car and headed up the stairs. Both he and his mother would later testify that Anthony had tried to force her over the second-story balcony. However, other witnesses testified that they never saw Anthony touch Pollard. Jimmie confronted the older man in the doorway, and the two exchanged words. Jimmie and his mother both testified that they saw Anthony reach into his pocket and lunge toward Jimmie, and believed he was about to stab him with a knife. No knife was found, but the police did find a keyring with the name “Anthony” on the ground, which was perhaps the source of the confusion.

Pollard, who was standing behind the boyfriend, tried to pull him away from her son, and Jimmie reached for his gun and fired three times. Two bullets passed completely through Anthony’s body and one became lodged in his sternum, leaving wounds in the chest, abdomen, groin, wrist, and thigh. Jimmie also accidentally shot his own mother, who was struck in the groin as one of the bullets exited Anthony’s body.

Jimmie and his friends immediately fled, leaving the two victims crumpled on the walkway. When police arrived, an anguished Carol was crying hysterically, trying to get her boyfriend to speak to her, while a friend tended her mother. “My brother shot him!” she told the cops. “My own brother!”

Anthony died shortly afterward. Rosalie Pollard survived. Jimmie Johnson was arrested later that night attempting to sneak back into his mother’s house. At trial, he said he believed he was defending her. He was convicted of second-degree murder and sentenced to fifteen years to life. He filed an appeal, but later dropped it and has by all accounts been a model prisoner. His correctional counselor and prison psychologist agree that his crime stemmed from a desire to protect his family and the impulsiveness of youth.

His youth, of course, should have prohibited him from owning the weapon; people under the age of 21 may not possess handguns. Although police never recovered the murder weapon, they found the receipt for it in his datebook. It came from Trader Sports, but the name on it belonged to one of Johnson’s friends, who admitted buying it for him. The friend told police that ten months previously, he and Johnson had gone into Trader Sports together. Johnson had picked out the Glock and set the money for it on the counter — both tips that he was the gun’s intended possessor. Then the friend, who was also underage, filled out the transaction forms using his older brother’s driver’s license. The license had been expired for several years, another potential tip-off that it was a fake ID. The friend told police that the sales clerk hadn’t examined it closely, and that the two friends hadn’t even tried to cover up the fact that one was filling out the paperwork for the other. The friend said that they actually went into the store together twice — the first time to put down the deposit, and the second time to pay the balance after the fake ID had passed the background check. The friend told the police that the clerk had handed the gun and receipt to him, and that as soon as they’d left the store he’d handed everything to Johnson. He said Johnson had promised to lock the gun up until he turned 21, then reregister it as his own.

Why did such an otherwise upstanding young man want a gun? As Johnson explained at a 2004 parole hearing, he was scared. A year before the murder, he’d been hanging out at a Jack in the Box on the way to a party after a football game, and one of his teammates got into an altercation with another kid from the neighborhood. When Johnson stepped in to be the peacemaker, the kid shot at him and missed. After that, Johnson said, he felt he needed protection.

Analyzing the Data

Connecting Johnson to his gun was practically a cakewalk, but it’s not always so easy. Guns are sometimes recovered long after a crime takes place, or far from the scene. That’s when you need a trace.

At the request of local law enforcement, ATF agents use a gun’s model and serial number to track its path from manufacturer to distributor, dealer, and first retail purchaser. Compiling thousands of such traces has given the ATF a massive database that can be mined for all sorts of crime data: what weapons and buying patterns are most frequently linked to crime, and who makes, sells, and buys such weapons. It gives law enforcement a useful tool for identifying potential bad actors. For example, stores that sell guns with a short “time to crime” might be selling directly to criminals. A customer who repeatedly purchases guns that turn up at crime scenes might be an arms trafficker.

The Clinton administration, faced with a period of heated national debate on gun-control issues, actively encouraged the ATF to publicly release gun-trace data. Soon academics, activists, and reporters had number-crunched their way to conclusions that helped feed the public appetite for reform. Studies showing how frequently cheap, small, easy-to-conceal handguns — also known as “junk guns” or “Saturday Night Specials” — were used in crimes led several states to ban or restrict them. Likewise, studies linking semi-automatic assault weapons to crime boosted support for their ban in 1994. (The federal ban was allowed to sunset in 2004, although several states including California still have them.)

ATF data analysis helped debunk the notion that crime guns come from a shadowy black market. In fact, just a few gun shops account for a disproportionate number of crime-gun traces. In 2000 — the last time the agency published such a report — it estimated that only 1.2 percent of licensed dealers in the United States accounted for 57 percent of all crime guns, and that 86 percent had no trace requests at all. “Virtually every crime gun in the United States starts off as a legal firearm,” the ATF’s director wrote that year. “Unlike narcotics or other contraband, the criminals’ supply of guns does not begin in clandestine factories or with illegal smuggling.”

All of this focused attention on the firearms industry’s role in supplying the weapons used by criminals. “The gun lobby doesn’t like that,” said Dix of the Million Mom March. “They know that the illegal market is very lucrative — it expands the total market for guns. They’d like to say that criminals are going to get their guns by stealing them or get them on the street, but it turns out an awful lot of crime guns are sold through dealers, often in suspect ways — a gun trafficker buys them or the guns ‘disappear’ from a store.” In fact, he said, criminals often prefer new guns from a dealership because they’re guaranteed to be uninvolved in prior crimes.

Gun-control advocates claim the industry happily profits from the misery of communities racked by gun violence. After all, said Daniel Vice, staff attorney for the Brady Center, manufacturers and distributors have known all along which shops are selling large numbers of crime guns, because they are contacted each time the ATF traces a weapon to those stores. And yet, he said, they “don’t seem to care where the profits are coming from as long as the dealer keeps ordering more guns.” During the Clinton years, victims’ families began suing gunmakers, and some municipalities filed public nuisance lawsuits against gunmakers and dealers, as the Bay Area cities did in 1999. Activist groups like the Brady Center sued individual gun stores for bad practices. “We had a few successful ones in the last few years,” Vice said. “Gun stores were starting to change their business practices, which results in less crime-gun sales, which means lower profits.”

In response, the gun lobby started pushing to eliminate access to gun-trace data. “The point of the gun-trace data system was to help the police catch criminals, and unfortunately we’ve seen lawyers and politicians try to pad their pockets or help the gun-control lobby promote the antigun agenda,” said Autumn Fogg, spokeswoman for the National Rifle Association. “It’s a law enforcement tool,” agrees Lawrence Keane, senior vice president of the National Shooting Sports Foundation, the firearms industry’s trade representative. “It was never collected for purposes of use in civil litigation.”

Keane goes so far as to argue that releasing the data actually contributes to crime. “Once it’s disclosed, even traffickers could then realize that they could make a request for the information and find out whether they were being investigated,” he said. “Once it’s available to the public, it’s available to anyone in the public.” This, he said, could jeopardize not only investigations, but the lives of law enforcement officers and cooperating witnesses if the trafficker tries to retaliate.

Based on hypothetical public-safety arguments like this, the weapons lobby has had remarkable success rolling back access to gun-trace data during the Bush administration. Kansas Republican Representative Todd Tiahrt succeeded in attaching a rider to the 2004 ATF appropriations bill that effectively prevented the ATF from releasing such data publicly. Each year, the “Tiahrt Amendment” to the ATF’s funding bill has gotten increasingly more restrictive — the 2006 version also forbids the use of such data in court. Congress is now considering a bill called HR 5005, which would make the amendment permanent and allow the data to be released only to law enforcement officers in connection with a specific criminal investigation, and only within their own geographic jurisdiction. It would become a felony punishable by five years in prison for officers in one jurisdiction to share gun-trace information with officers in another. These changes would make it much more difficult for law enforcement groups to develop policing strategies or investigate issues such as how guns are trafficked between areas.

Gun-control advocates are equally worried about HR 5092, a bill that would allow gun shops to stay in business sixty days after their license is revoked, or for their owner to transfer the business to somebody else. The bill would also reclassify federal gun laws as “serious” and “nonserious” and allow the ATF to only revoke licenses for violations of the “serious” laws. “These bills would really weaken the ATF more, and the ATF is already very weak,” Dix said. “It’s very difficult for them to shut a really bad gun deal down because the laws are written against them.”

For example, the ATF is limited to only one surprise inspection a year, and to revoke a license it must prove that violations are both repeated and willful. That’s one reason it took nearly five years to complete the current case against Trader Sports. If these new laws pass, critics say, no business like Trader Sports is likely to get shut down ever again.

When asked where the agency stood on HR 5005, whether the Tiahrt Amendment had undercut the ability to do its job effectively, and whether publicly releasing gun-trace data is a good or bad idea, ATF spokeswoman Nina Delgadillo couldn’t comment. In fact, she couldn’t comment on the fact that she couldn’t comment.

Meet the .380-Caliber Grendel P-10 Semi-Automatic Pistol

On a May night in 1991, an Oakland drug dealer named Marzett Davis drove to Livermore to commit a robbery, which he and his friends called “doing a lick.” He’d dressed entirely in black, and under the hood of his blue Chevy Malibu, he’d hidden a .380-caliber Grendel P-10 semi-automatic pistol wrapped in a sandwich bag.

The friends had planned how the lick would go down the week before. They knew that every evening, a clerk from Ernie’s Liquors dropped a money bag into a bank night deposit box in the same shopping center. Davis and his friends had already watched clerks do the drop on two occasions. They’d agreed that he would do the robbery while the others waited in the getaway car. They chose Wednesday, a Lotto night, figuring that the store’s profits that day would be particularly juicy.

Davis pulled up to his friend’s Livermore apartment, took the gun from under the hood of his car, and stuffed it in the waistband of his pants. Then the four young men drove out to the shopping center and parked in a darkened area across the street.

As they’d planned, Davis got out of the car and waited around the corner from the drop box for the night clerk to arrive. Every few seconds, he’d peer around the bend to see if she was on her way. But when the Ernie’s clerk finally showed up, she was not who Davis expected. During the dry runs, a middle-aged woman had made the drop. This woman was seventy years old. Her name was Kathryn Cary, and she carried a money bag with about $1,800 in it.

Davis made his move, prosecutors later argued, pulling his gun and trying to grab the money bag. Cary fought back and managed to get the money partway into the drop box. Whether in anger over the botched robbery, or to prevent her from identifying him to police, or because Cary allegedly slapped him, as the prosecutor explained, Davis pulled the trigger. He fired three shots; two struck Cary in the stomach and thigh, and a third lodged in a metal post. He fled to the getaway car. Cary died later that night.

Although the Grendel P-10 was never recovered, it nevertheless helped police link the crime to Davis. When they searched his apartment, they found newspaper clippings about the crime, gun receipts from Trader Sports, and partially empty boxes of ammunition that matched the slug and casings at the crime scene.

It was a fairly uncommon type of bullet: Israeli Military Industries .380-caliber 95-grain full-metal-jacketed bullets with brass-colored primers. Moreover, the casings had some very specific tool marks on them left during the making of that batch of ammo. The marks from the crime scene casings matched those on the ammo recovered from Davis’ closet. Additionally, the slug fired into the metal post had markings similar to those left by the barrels of Grendel P-10s.

The odds of someone else using not only the same kind of bullets with the same markings as Davis, but also the same kind of gun, were quite remote. Oddly, however, that’s the defense he chose in court. While he admitted that he’d been at the scene, that he’d planned to rob Cary, and that he’d brought the gun to intimidate her, Davis claimed he never got the chance. As he waited beside the drop box, he testified, he saw an extraordinary thing — someone else robbing and killing Kathryn Cary.

Davis testified that he’d stepped around the corner to see Cary struggling with a blond white guy who was trying to get something out of her hand, and who then threw her aside. He said he heard two shots, then took off running, got into his friend’s car, and drove away. Never mind that nobody else witnessed a mysterious blond white guy, nor that Davis’ accomplices had already agreed to do jail time, nor that the police had taped phone calls of Davis making plans to have others threaten his accomplices so they would change their stories, nor that at one point Davis himself had actually told the cops that he knew they didn’t have the gun that killed Cary.

But since the gun was missing, at trial prosecutor Angela Backers had to prove that Davis had owned it at one point. She made a point of showing how Davis — prohibited from buying guns because of his cocaine-dealing conviction — had arranged for a relative with a clean criminal record buy guns for him, including a Grendel P-10.

“You asked him to buy you a little .380 and you send him down to Trader’s and you gave him the money, right?” Backers asked.

“Yes,” Davis replied.

“Did you go with him?” she asked.

“I never went with him to pick up anything on no occasions,” he said.

Clearly, it would be extremely difficult for a sales clerk to detect a straw sale of this type since the two men were never in the store together. The records custodian from Trader Sports testified during the trial that the store had sold Davis’ relative four identical Grendel P-10s within three months of each other, just months before the Cary murder. Purchasing several copies of the same gun close together can indicate that the buyer isn’t buying them all for himself, but doing so wasn’t illegal, and if the same clerk hadn’t been at the counter each time, no one might have noticed.

Davis admitted that two of those guns had been for him, and said he’d kept the receipts with the other man’s name on them so that if his apartment was ever searched, he could deny they were his. (After delivering the Grendels, Davis’ relative continued to buy for him — by the time the case went to trial, Department of Justice records showed that the relative had purchased fifteen weapons, eleven of which the prosecution claimed were bought for Davis.)

Police ultimately recovered three of the Grendels, and ballistics tests showed they were clean. The jury believed that the missing fourth belonged to Davis. He was convicted of first-degree murder and attempted robbery, and sentenced to life without parole.

Beating the System

As the Davis case illustrates, a crime gun can be traced back to a store without necessarily proving that the dealer was negligent in selling it. But what about when hundreds of crime guns are traced to the same store?

Firearms industry spokesmen say it still doesn’t prove someone is a bad operator. “That’s like saying, ‘We see that there are a lot of drunk-driving accidents with vehicles manufactured by General Motors, therefore GM must be doing something wrong,” Keane said. “It could be high volume of sales, it could be their location near an interstate freeway, a function of the socioeconomics of the area the dealer is located in. It could be that the dealer sold a gun to someone that turns out to be a straw purchaser but it was not known at the time. That’s the difficulty of straw purchasing — the dealer cannot know the mind of the buyer.”

This is why, said Delgadillo of the ATF, dealers are expected to rigorously check ID and look for red-flag behaviors — people who are shopping off a list or are unfamiliar with the weapon they are buying. Paying in cash, paying for a gun someone else has picked out, being unable to explain why they want the gun or who it is for, buying many guns at the same time, or buying models favored by criminals are other signs, said Vice of the Brady Center.

Yet it is equally difficult to know the mind of the seller. To close down a store, the ATF must show that the errors are systematic — that a dealer repeatedly and knowingly violates the law. After all, the ATF didn’t bust Trader Sports for all those crime-gun traces but for years of sloppy inventory records and erroneous transaction slips.

For people in the surrounding community, the proof of whether a store was truly a bad operator is seeing what effect its shutdown has on local crime. Activists like Dix believe that closing Trader Sports will make the community safer by making it harder to obtain weapons.

After all, it’s hard to commit a gun crime when you don’t have a gun. For the men in these three stories, getting a gun was remarkably simple. For two of them, the presence of a gun made it easier for an unplanned confrontation — a road-rage incident and a family argument — to escalate to murder. While these three murders may be among the grislier crimes committed using weapons traced to Trader Sports, the fact that the store fielded 1,424 trace requests in just the last three years indicates that there are other stories to be told. “There are many victims out there who, if you had the data, could be linked to this store,” Vice sighed. “The ATF has all that information at the push of a key, but they’re not allowed to tell anyone.

“The worst part is that the ATF had a chance to revoke his license back in the ’80s,” he continued. “Twenty years later, they’re trying to close him down again and all the shootings that happened since then could have been prevented.”

Critics of Trader Sports worry that it is still open and pressing forward with new litigation. Store attorney Segal is currently asking for a new hearing in federal court to determine if the ATF acted improperly in revoking Cucchiara’s license. He claims the store has been inspected too frequently, for too long, and by too many people at a time. For example, he said, in 2003 the ATF sent in a “raiding party” of fifteen inspectors rather than the usual one or two. “We believe the ATF violated their own regulations and statutes passed by Congress, which precludes them from harassing firearms dealers by inspecting more than once in a twelve-month period of time, and by violating that statute they acquired information concerning the records of the store improperly and should not be able to proceed based upon those records,” Segal said. “Second, we believe Trader Sports acted properly in the record-keeping process, and ATF’s claims that the store intentionally and willfully did not maintain the proper records is wrong.”

Even if the litigation fails, Cucchiara could recruit himself another Everett Studley, particularly if HR 5092 passes. “There is no reason a friend or family member can’t apply for a new license and take over the shop, and then everything the ATF did is for nothing,” Vice said. Segal wouldn’t speculate on this possibility, although he did say that the shop will stay open selling camping and fishing gear indefinitely. “There are some twenty-plus people who are long-term employees of the store who would otherwise have to lose their job,” he said.

So even after more than three-and-a-half decades of government investigation and legal wrangling, Trader Sports might still get another shot.


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