The following is a completely true story. The names have not been changed, because if you’re going to accuse me of committing a crime you’d better be right or else something like this is going to hit #1 in your Google results. This is a story about how one person’s misunderstanding of the law, even when no crime has been committed, can quickly lead to criminal charges and permanent damage. It’s a story of a bureaucracy gone horribly wrong. And what makes it even scarier is that it can happen again to any one of us at any time . . .
As I was wrapping up the recent review of the Weatherby Vanguard Series 2, I came to the conclusion that I couldn’t let this firearm go back to Weatherby. It had to be mine. So I purchased it figuring that I’d fund my impulse buy with the revenue generated from the sale of the old Weatherby Vanguard sitting in my closet.
I grabbed some pictures from the review, slapped up an online ad and within a few minutes had offers to buy it from across the country. The eventual buyer was actually a reader of the site who bought it specifically because he figured that he could trust a used gun from a TTAG writer over anything else. We quickly concluded the sale and pretty soon I had the cash in hand and the information for an FFL in Florida to whom I would ship the rifle.
Next, I went through the exact same motions I had gone through dozens of times before with both T&E guns and my own personal firearm sales. I first verified that the destination was an actual legit FFL capable of receiving firearms. Then I boxed up the gun – bolt removed and ammunition absent – in a nondescript brown box.
Then I brought it to the local customer service center UPS, a common carrier, disclosing that the package contained a rifle. I used the FFL’s address as the destination and sent it via ground shipping. I then walked out of the office believing that I had heard the last of the gun, having promptly and properly shipped it to its destination.
Boy, was I wrong.
The first sign of trouble came on Saturday. The buyer in Florida arrived at his FFL, Ad-Tek of Tallahassee, Inc., and the FFL refused to transfer the firearm. The buyer gave me a call from the shop explaining that the FFL holder, Bob Morrison, did not want to transfer a firearm from an individual in a different state. I talked to him, explaining how I had done this exact same thing dozens of times before and asking whether it was store policy or some law he thought we were in violation of, but his response was clear as a bell: “I don’t want to discuss it.” That was the end of the conversation, and he did not want to answer any more of my questions.
At that point, I got it. I can understand. It’s his gun shop and if he doesn’t want to transfer a firearm from some random guy in Texas, that’s fine. Worst case scenario, the firearm was still legally mine as he had not completed the transfer, so I didn’t see an issue with him doing a direct abort and sending it right back where it came from. No harm done, no laws violated, everyone goes home happy.
He then offered something that to this day I cannot believe someone would actually suggest: he said he would do the transfer if an FFL on my side, in Texas, would falsify their bound book to say they had shipped the firearm.
I’m going to let that sink in for a second: Bob Morrison, licensee at Ad-Tek of Tallahassee, Inc., wanted to defraud the ATF.
He wanted an FFL who had never even seen my gun to put the serial number in their book, in effect swearing that they were the entity transferring it. He wanted another FFL to knowingly participate in a fraud.
He hung up before I could formulate a response to his little proposed scheme. I contemplated the scenario for a bit, and quickly concluded that I wasn’t comfortable with it at all. It’s not something I would even consider asking an FFL here to do, let alone expect they’d actually do it. I told him that no one I knew was willing to do that and if he didn’t want the gun, he should ship it back to me so I could go through another FFL.
Apparently William Morrison had another idea. He called the ATF.
Agent Don Williams of the Tallahassee office of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) called me at 4 PM CST on Monday. I was at work with my cell phone off, but thankfully Google transcribes and forwards all of my voicemails to my Gmail inbox for me. As soon as I saw the words “It was shipped improperly and illegally” in my inbox, I knew I was in for an interesting afternoon.
The very first thing I did, like all law abiding citizens would do instinctively, was call the ATF agent back. I’d passed more background checks than I can even remember. I’m the legal owner of an NFA weapon which required the FBI to run my fingerprints and perform a thorough background check. I held a security clearance, the investigation for which was so thorough that they found my ex girlfriends and interviewed them. I’m the most squeaky clean, law abiding individual on the face of the earth and the mere idea that I’d broken the law was preposterous. I had done this exact same dance many times before and according to everything I had read and researched, I was in the clear. There had to be something going on that I didn’t know about.
I stepped outside my office, dialed the number he gave and when he picked up, I simply said “Hello, this is Nick Leghorn returning your call.”
His tone of voice instantly changed. When he answered the phone, he initially sounded businesslike and detached, but as soon as I told him my name, he started in with the most condescending tone I have ever heard in my life. “Nick! Hey buddy!” He said it in a sing-song manner. It was like he was the cat, I was a cornered mouse and he was just playing with me. I’m kicking myself for not having recorded it. It’s been a few hours since the conversation so I’m going to paraphrase as accurately I can.
The very first thing Agent Williams did was try to get me to admit to committing a crime, something I wasn’t going to do. I had fond memories of listening to Kevin Mitnick‘s stories about his tangle with the FBI. I was trying to be as helpful as possible without admitting any guilt or illegal activity.
Agent Williams insisted that I had shipped the rifle to an individual instead of an FFL, but that didn’t make sense. The FFL had clearly received the firearm and I kept trying to point that out. I had shipped the gun to the FFL, the license holder in Florida. The same person that had called him. The person currently in possession of the rifle.
At one point he tried to claim that the issue was that I had sold the firearm to an individual and that the FFL needed to be involved in the actual sale. That made even less sense. I kept trying to get him to explain exactly what law I had broken, but he became more and more agitated because I wasn’t simply standing down and admitting guilt.
At that point Agent Williams tried to get me to admit that I didn’t have an FFL. “Do you have an FFL?” he asked. “Yes, I have a Type 3 FFL” I truthfully replied. You could see the OODA loop in his mind resetting as it clearly wasn’t the answer he was expecting. His tone of voice then dropped back down to that of a normal conversation and he stopped being a condescending dick for a brief moment.
“Well…” he sputtered, “…you should have included a copy of your FFL!” I replied, “It doesn’t fall under my license as a collector of curios and relics. I didn’t log it in my bound book as it doesn’t meet the requirements. There’s no reason I should have included my FFL. I was simply answering your question as truthfully as possible.”
As he started to piece together the information I had given him, his demeanor started swinging back towards condescension, but not quite as bad as it was when the conversation started. I wanted to know what I had done wrong since, as far as I could tell, I was in the clear. I had shipped a firearm to an FFL, a license holder. So I asked him again to explain to me exactly what he thought I had done wrong. I can remember the words almost exactly.
“You as an individual cannot ship a firearm to an FFL interstate. You need to give the firearm to an FFL in Texas, who will ship it to an FFL in Florida.”
At the time it sounded plausible. It had been a while since I had read the statutes and with a memory like mine, it’s possible that I forgot something. Possible, but extremely unlikely.
The solution, according to Agent Williams, was to “un-ring the bell” as he put it. We would roll back the whole thing, get the gun back to me and I’d send it back to Florida through an FFL on my end this time. I asked whether the firearm could be shipped back to me as it was still legally my firearm. He said he would look into it and get back to me. I have to give him credit, it wasn’t a terrible solution to the problem.
What scares me is that, had he not decided to “be nice” and roll everything back, he had some terrifying options at his disposal. Taking down an “illegal arms dealer” who was “trafficking firearms” near the Mexican border would have looked great on the news.
The jackbooted thug option would definitely have left some marks both on my record and my person. I’m a U.S. citizen who’d done nothing wrong, yet my name could have easily been splashed across the news and smeared as an illegal gun trafficker. I could see the thin line separating me from the same kind of treatment George Zimmerman is getting right now.
How does one even deal with that kind of situation? What if he hadn’t called and instead simply sent the local ATF branch to come collect me? Even worse, what would have happened if they had decided to raid my apartment in force? There have been more than enough reports of raids by gang members dressed as police officers along the border, so how does one distinguish the real from the fakes? All the possibilities of what could happen flowed through my mind, scaring me more and more with each passing second.
That’s when we ended the call. Agent Williams had described the situation as he saw it, outlined the law he thought I broke and proposed a solution. He said he would look into sending the rifle straight back to me and hung up.
The very next thing I did was call Sean Cody, the attorney behind some of a friend’s gun trusts. Even though he didn’t know me, he was more than happy to listen to the facts of the case and proclaim that the ATF agent had their head completely up his ass.
I quote directly from the ATF’s own Frequently Asked Questions page on their website:
“A nonlicensee may ship a firearm by a common or contract carrier to a resident of his or her own State or to a licensee in any State.”
I lost my goddamned mind.
I would have understood if the agent, Don Williams of the Tallahassee office of the ATF, had screwed up an obscure bit of firearms law minutiae. If there was some minor technicality that was at issue, I wouldn’t blame him for being slightly off base. But in this case the agent was completely and totally wrong. What made it worse was that Sean Cody found the correct answer on the ATF’s own Goddamned site after less than three minutes of Googling.
The slightest bit of effort on Agent Williams’ part would have proven that the FFL’s concern about receiving firearms from unlicensed individuals was unfounded. But he didn’t bother doing even that much. It sounded illegal, so it was illegal.
How could this possibly happen? I assume the ATF put Williams through training of some sort before they gave him the title of “agent.” Or am I wrong? Does the ATF let these guys make it up as they go along? Is it common practice among the ATF to be so ignorant of the laws they enforce that a quick look at their own website proves them wrong? How incompetent can one agent possibly be?
As I was sitting at my desk contemplating whether to call the agent back and point out his mistake, he called me back. He stated that he had been mistaken. He admitted that I was completely correct and had done nothing illegal. He added that the transfer would take place to the buyer as soon as possible. The call ended at 5 PM.
There was no apology, though, for almost ruining my life.
When I was in college, I read John Ross’ Unintended Consequences. There was a group of us reading it actually, as we had heard it was a terrible book and wanted to find out exactly how terrible it was (spoiler: it’s pretty bad). One thing I could never understand was the distrust and contempt that Ross has for the ATF’s agents. I refused to believe that an agency of the government could be so terrible at their jobs that it would warrant their murder.
I’m not saying I’ve come to the same belief as Mr. Ross, but I can understand where he comes from now. My life could have been ruined thanks to an FFL with an itchy dialing finger and an incompetent ATF agent. If either had been just a hair more malicious, I could be facing a felony charge and huge legal bills right now instead of relating a cautionary tale to TTAG’s readers. Now I understand how Mr. Ross could see battling it out as the only option, especially against a bureaucracy that would rather send an innocent man to jail than spend three minutes actually looking at the law and doing their jobs.
Let me just make this clear: I don’t blame the FFL for calling the ATF. I do blame the FFL for not discussing the situation first, though. Five minutes of reasonable conversation could have avoided this whole mess. And I blame the ATF agent for being so utterly incompetent that it only takes three minutes on Google to prove him completely wrong. I also blame him for being an officious, condescending dick to someone whose only intention was to follow the law.