The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) has a long history of “walking” guns – mostly to entrap normally law-abiding citizens on technical violations. Our man “Ike” shares a story on the subject, with the following caveat: “My friends are almost all dead now, and I’m sure the statute of limitations has run out. Nevertheless, names and specific information has been left out to protect the innocent (and presumed innocent).” His story as follows . . .
Years ago, just before the 1968 Gun Control Act, there was extensive active (but illicit) trading in machine guns and shoulder-stocked handguns by otherwise law-abiding collectors. It was all victimless crime, with no criminal intent, as none of the guns were being used to shoot anyone. (It was a lot like underage beer drinking. Everybody did it, just don’t get caught.)
The collectors just liked the history and craftsmanship of these relatively rare guns, and bought as many as they could find. Many had been brought back from WWII or Korea by GIs, and were commonly found. A wanted ad in the paper would produce several from vets or their families. At any given gun show, there would be several underneath the tables, and all you had to do was ask around.
In the 1960’s, in Kansas City, several collectors specialized in military weapons of all kinds, and they really liked machine guns – primarily submachine guns. They owned Stens (even the ultra rare German copies of the Stens), MP44s, Schmeissers, MP38s, MP40s, Japanese SMGs, selective fire Mauser pistols, a few WWI MG-08s. Not to mention Artillery Lugers with stock, Broomhandles with stocks, etc.
Anyway, you get the picture: all the great guns that collectors lust after, many of museum quality. Machine guns didn’t have the bad reputation they have today.
ATF didn’t think much of these activities; they decided to put a halt to them. So they ‘borrowed’ a mint-condition, Colt Model 1921 Thompson in an FBI case from the Olathe Naval Air Station in Olathe, Kansas. (I doubt if they told the Navy what they had planned.) Through an ATF informer, they arranged for the Thompson to be sold to one of the local collectors. It was resold more than once. Eventually, it ended up in the advanced collection of a friend of mine, who knew what he had.
This fellow was a student of arms and knew more about guns than anyone I had ever met. He once showed me a copy of “Small Arms of the World” by W.H.B. Smith, and explained to this novice that it was his goal to collect one of each gun in the book. He was well on his way.
I saw the Thompson and handled it at my friend’s home. I was deeply impressed. Colt craftsmanship and finish from the early 1920’s was truly outstanding – and the condition was near new. It even had drum magazines and the special stick magazines for the .45 shot cartridges for riot control. Sweet.
Shortly thereafter, my friend got a phone call from one of the prior owners of the Thompson, who said “They’re coming! Get rid of the Thompson!”
My friend, an educated professional, knew he was in deep trouble. He owned more than 100 collector-quality machine guns and shoulder-stocked collector handguns (illegal at that time). No criminal intent, obviously. He simply liked the guns and couldn’t resist collecting them.
The ATF wasn’t concerned about “criminal intent.” A technical violation was a criminal act and that was that. If the ATF came in with a warrant to search his house, he would be caught with all those unregistered machine guns, lose his professional license and wouldn’t be able to earn a living. Not to mention the distinct possibility of a jail sentence, a criminal record and a lifetime ban on owning firearms of any sort, kind or description.
So, in the dead of night, he and a friend transported the machine guns to a trusted welding shop. Working throughout the night, all the machine guns were welded up into DEWATs (Deactivated War Trophies). They were fully legal and unrestricted at the time—but worth only a few percent of the value of the original guns. That wasn’t the only reason my friends damn near cried as they welded the guns.
As expected, ATF showed-up looking for the Thompson. My friend produced it – all welded up and fully legal. The ATF agents were incensed. Of course they had a pretty good idea what had taken place, but couldn’t prove it. They threatened my friend with prosecution and loss of his professional license. My friend stood his ground (he had a good lawyer). Ultimately, ATF seized the Thompson, and slunk away with their tails between their legs, acting all high and mighty.
Later, we got word that the Navy was highly offended when the ATF returned the Thompson all welded up. Seems the agency didn’t win any friends that day.
Again, the ATF has a long history of “walking” guns. As long as the guns are ‘walked’ into the hands of normally law-abiding citizens who may be committing only technical violations, the consequences are minor. For society, anyway.
When the ATF allows guns to ‘walk’ into the hands of hardened criminals—as we’ve seen in Operation Gunwalker—the consequences are deadly. But the methodology is the same: inefficient, ineffective entrapment without even a passing thought about the consequences of their actions.
There ought to be a law.