About a year ago, a pissed off FFL holder and an incompetent/belligerent ATF agent in Florida almost had me facing felony charges for something that even the ATF’s website says isn’t a crime. Yeah, shame on me for assuming that the buyer would let the FFL know that a gun was coming, and that the FFL would be intelligent enough to realize that the shipping manifest on the package satisfied the records requirement for the bound book. I had never had an issue before, but ever since every shipment from me to dealers has included a full letter detailing what’s going on and about three photocopied forms of ID from me. Anyway, it turns out that the ATF agent involved in that case has a history of abusing the system to screw over gun owners. A reader named Ted sent in this account of his father’s encounter with the very same agent, one that did make its way to the courts . . .

Dear Nick,

I happened across an article/blog entry you wrote a year ago, where you had a run-in with the Tallahassee, FL ATF agent, Don Williams. I found it fascinating, since this is the same agent that nearly sent my father, Ted Sr., away to federal prison for five years.

My retired father (retired from turning a 30 million dollar firetruck manufacturing company – Emergency One, Inc. of Ocala, Florida—into a half-billion dollar company) attended gun shows frequently to more thoroughly enjoy his enthusiasm for fine handguns and rifles of all kinds. He bought, sold, traded, etc. He’s considered an expert on Smith & Wesson revolvers, if not an expert on guns, reloading, etc., in general. He had zero criminal history. At these gun shows, he was not dealing in firearms. He kept no accounting, no tally of expenses, and never “flipped” recently acquired guns for quick profit. He did not sell for profit, and sales merely recouped some costs of the guns themselves. Dad had no FFL.

Truth be told, he liked to hang out with gun guys, show off his collection, augment it and whittle it down as he saw fit. Admittedly, he went to a lot of gun shows, always renting tables, and racked up seventy some-odd shows in two years. Somehow or another he caught the attention of the Florida ATF and they wrote him a letter generically stating “You appear to be dealing in firearms. Stop.” He showed the letter to me. I wrote a four-page response to the ATF outlining why my father wasn’t a dealer and why, in my opinion (I’m an attorney), he wasn’t breaking the provisions of the 1968 Act. Dad kept going to shows.  Apparently the ATF wasn’t impressed with my letter.

At some point Don Williams, ATF, swore out a probable cause affidavit in support of a warrant application alleging he’s positive, upon searching my father’s home, that he’ll find all kinds of evidence of dealing in firearms without a license. I arrived at my father’s big, beautiful, manicured home one day to see the place swarming with ATF agents and some local SWAT guys decked out in assault gear. The agents found no evidence, other than guns, that Dad is dealing. Nonetheless, they seized 29 firearms (out of hundreds) as evidence at trial that my father was dealing. Why? The seized weapons had price tags on them. Obviously this is evidence that you’re dealing, when guns you take to shows are marked with your asking price. Never mind that many of the guns confiscated had been owned by my father for over twenty years.

After the search and seizure, I had a conversation with agent Williams during which he stated, “You’ll never see those guns again. They’re gone.” Regardless, I put up a fight for them in Federal civil court. If a person doesn’t put up a fight, the guns are lost regardless of the criminal case’s outcome. Unless your son is a lawyer, you’re shit-out-of-luck even if the jury finds you innocent and the city throws you a ticker tape parade.

My father was subsequently charged with two federal felonies: dealing in firearms without a license and selling a firearm to an out of state resident (the latter charge was disingenous, as the buyer was an undercover ATF agent that my father firmly believed maintained a residence in Florida). The “out of state” charge’s facts were merely used to beef up the probable cause affidavit.

At a trial that lasted two full days, the ATF put on reams of trial testimony, including calling me as a witness and having me explain my letter, which I’m certain didn’t help their case. The prosecution refused at all stages to entertain any plea offers. The ATF wanted to make “an example” of my father. The State presented hours and hours of meaningless, cumulative evidence that my dad sold guns at the shows, booked hotel rooms in advance of the shows he attended, that he made deposits into his bank account of money obtained at shows, and that he refused to obey the ATF letter telling him to stop. An ATF lawyer, on the stand on cross examination, incorrectly summarized several federal firearms laws, illustrating how confusing our gun laws are.

Our defense consisted of pointing out that there wasn’t proof of actual profit, that Dad was an enthusiast/hobbyist under the 1968 Act’s exception, and that he thought the undercover ATF buyer was a resident of Florida. The defense also put a small FFL holder/dealer on the stand, who pointed out that my father’s actions and activities would never keep even a small dealer in business.

The jury found him not guilty of dealing, but found him guilty of selling to an out of state resident. A felony conviction. We did get the guns back, however. The judge departed from guidelines and sentenced my father to a year of probation.

Agent Don Williams personally returned the guns to me in Tallahassee, Florida, at the ATF offices. All of them were damaged (nicks and scrapes), amounting to about $5,000.00 in damages. A Merkel shotgun, worth about $6,000, had some really nice chips taken out of the beautiful stock. Williams stated that he really liked my father, and that the ATF now gives more leeway to “collectors” and hobbyists in evaluating their activities at gun shows. After two years of hell, this was small comfort. My Dad’s appeal for the “out of state resident” conviction is up for oral argument in Atlanta in two weeks.  He may win the appeal on a technicality, which would be nice because he’d then be able to own his guns again, instead of saying that I own them all.

Anyway, I saw your article and had to say something, as this same agent nearly ruined my retiree father’s life.

Something you wrote struck me: You said that agent Williams seemed condescending. I can assure you he isn’t like that. He’s actually, sincerely, a damned nice guy. They all are, or appear to be anyway. All the ATF agents were complete gentleman at all times.  During the search of the house, they were privy to some ill-advised statements made by my father (despite my having told him repeatedly to be quiet). At trial, not one of those agents repeated what he said. A younger agent had me walk him to his car after the search where he told me, “I didn’t want to be doing this…I thought we’d be going after real bad guys.” Agent Williams even told me at some point he was sorry about what happened to my father.

Which brings me to my final point: when government gets too big and the laws become too tangled and too many, oppression and tyranny are almost unavoidable. It’s a natural result of bored lawmen stuck enforcing vague federal statutes. The nicest, kindest souls can be hired to police our most cherished freedoms. Saints may roam the halls of federal buildings. Our monstrous government can adhere to the finest employment standards and background checks. But in the end, all it will mean is that when the G-men show up to take our stuff and throw us in jail, they’ll do it politely. They might even smile and tell us they’re sorry.

85 Responses to The Continuing Saga of Don Williams, ATF Agent

  1. Classic example of why some people need to be buried 10′ deep instead of 6′. Because deep down, they’re really nice people…

  2. I disagree .The only reason the ATF agent was nice to the letters author was because of his status as an attorney.

    For us unwashed Joes,its condescension in spades.

    • TOTALLY AGREE! I have had similar dealings with LEO’s. Federal, State and local.

      Similar scenario’s, EXCEPT…..90% were abusive a$$$holes. When all is said and done, and I am found to be “one of the good guys”, some will lighten up and act halfway human…..IMO, nothing but an act.

    • They might even be nice to you in jail… and apologize profusely that you happened to get put in a jail cell with gay rapist.

  3. He bought, sold, traded, etc. Well that about says it. ATF busted a guy in Fort Worth for the very same thing and took 35 AR platform guns from him and HE didn’t get them back. I have seen these guys doing this for 30 years, they buy tables and buy, sell and trade. YUP it is called buy and selling without a license

      • If it were illegal to have a table at a show without an FFL, then he would not have been able to rent one. Under the law there are all sorts of indicia of being engaged in a business. Making a profit is one, but if you’re not making a profit, then deducting losses and expenses is another. It can get fuzzy at the border, but it doesn’t sound like this gentleman was there.

  4. I think the not guilty outcome in this case was just (sorry for the years of hell), but why in the world did your dad not just rent a tiny business office somewhere and get an FFL?

    If a client came to my office and described what you did, I would say “Techincally, you are OK. But you could save yourself an awful lot of hassle by getting an FFL.”

    Yes, I agree your dad should be safe because he does not buy/sell/trade “with the principal objective of livelihood and profit through the repetitive purchase and resale of firearms.” As it is though, your Dad is betting his freedom on what a jury would say his “objective” is. He got lucky once. I’m glad he did. But gosh man, tell him to spend some of the fire truck money and get an FFL.

    P.S. For those who are curious, the “objective of livelihood” language I quoted above is from the ATF’s definition of what it means to be “engaged in the business” of firearms, and thus need an FFL. You can find the regulation at 27 CFR 478.11

    • You have an FFL then you’re inviting the ATF jackbooted thugs to walk into your life/home at anytime make and “inspection”in the same manner as they arrived at guys home in the story. in Just invite the local branch of the Crips/Bloods/IRS.

      (And E-One builds the best fire trucks on the market.)

      • The father went to “70 odd” gun shows in two years. That’s nearly one per week. He bought and sold at those 70 shows without a license at rented tables.

        IMHO, that’s far more likely to attract ATF attention (and did) than simply getting an FFL.

        • I don’t do that many gun shows and I HAVE AN FFL. Which part of the buying, selling and trading firearms is not a hobby. Your doing business and breaking the law……

  5. And where were all those brave, honorable LEOs that love the second amendment and the constitution? Not a peep of protest. Not a single one said “we’re not going to do this” and stood in defiance of this petty tyrant who manufactures crimes for his own benefit.

    “The mass of men serve the state thus, not as men mainly, but as machines, with their bodies. They are the standing army, and the militia, jailers, constables, posse comitatus, etc. In most cases there is no free exercise whatever of the judgement or of the moral sense; but they put themselves on a level with wood and earth and stones; and wooden men can perhaps be manufactured that will serve the purpose as well. Such command no more respect than men of straw or a lump of dirt. They have the same sort of worth only as horses and dogs.” – Henry David Thoreau, Civil Disobedience

    • Most were probably working for local agencies and trying to make a difference in a positive way, instead of working for the federal agency most likely to be involved in this kind of nonsense.

      I didn’t think I would ever want to work for ATF. Now, I’m wondering if I should, just so I could be the one holding this stuff back. Until I got fired.

      • Right, because being a revenue agent for a local government is making a positive difference. Locals were on the scene here, according to the story. But they weren’t defending the Constitution.

        • Sure seems that when the feds call (ATF, IRS, FBI, ICE, alphabet soup) call the locals most often the locals bend over and assume/act as if they feds own them. Apparently local juristiction/federalism in unknow by the HS grads manning the local copshop.

          Perhaps its just the most exciting thing to happen in months at the donut shop. A great excuse to get out the black balaclava and BDUs, body armor, shield, batterram, HK. Yeehaa gonna go break something/why does the FD get all the fun!!

  6. I don’t usually trade/sell firearms but if I do I usually transfer at an Ffl and split the fee.

    • Thinking about this, what’s the difference when someone sets up a booth at a craft fair selling decorative knives, or someone selling hammers at a flee market. Firearms are a tool and shouldn’t have all these stupid laws for selling them. Constitutional carry for all when u turn 18 get issued a card and get it revoked for commuting a violent crime then no gun sale if no card, that would make it easy for all, but you’d get counterfeits etc…

    • Overcompliance with the law is never a good idea. Private sales are legal, and have the advantage of staying out of a potential database. Except where the seller has concerns over the eligibility of the buyer, why routinely do FFL transfers. It adds cost, builds records, is too obsequious to government, and takes time. Like the guidance on not consenting to searches, one should think carefully before providing more info to government that needed to comply with the law. It leads to bad things.

      • Before you make a statement like (Private sales are legal,) you might to check your facts. In some states even Privites sales MUST go through an FFL.

        • Louringe: I said over compliance. Where FFL trnasactions are required, it would not be over compliance, would it?

  7. Regardless of how polite or apologetic they are, I don’t consider people who try to ruin your life or throw you in a cage to be “nice.”

  8. I would like to recommend to everybody the book “Liberal Fascism”, available from Amazon, et al. Really explains where this comes from and why it happens.

    • That book really, really sucks. Its logic is twisted, and it ignores the historicity of the various fascist movements in the 1920s and -30s. It uses modern sensibility and labels to paint a picture of something that happened completely divorced from modern United States politics.

      It’s utter garbage.

  9. “One may smile and smile an be a villain.” Shakespeare.

    Hitler was very kind to his dog. It didn’t make him a nice guy. Eventually, he poisoned the dog. People like Don Williams poison America. Every day.

    • Didn’t he poison the dog so the Brits or Americans couldn’t take it prisoner? They might have interrogated it as to whether he was REALLY dead or not!

  10. Read between the lines of Ted’s article before you think he is defending the ATF. Or at least through to the last paragraph.

    • Yeah, I’m pretty sure some folks will be frothing at the mouth long before they get to that all-important last paragraph. Just watch all the people who didn’t get the point.

      • Sorry, but I don’t believe anything a lawyer writes or states, from first word to last. Lawyers are no better than ATF agents.

      • Yeah, given the comments the “AI” doesn’t quite get the subtly of this guy’s message and that’s a damn shame.

        They think he was complimenting the ATF rather than the farthest thing from it.

        He was pointing out that tyranny is deceptively polite, courteous, and can make even people who don’t agree with it willfully do it’s bidding.

  11. Banks may be to big to fail, but government is already too big to govern effectively and while with banks there is some recourse, there is no recourse when the government goes to far.

    If all the recent Obama scandels does not tell you we have gone to far, I don’t know what does.

    • Government does not stop because it’s grown ineffective. It IS effective at one thing: PROTECTING ITS OWN BACKSIDE. Though the effectiveness is more from power than competence.

  12. Yeah, I see this comments section going down in flames fast, because you dared to say something complimentary about an ATF agent. I hope nobody firebombs your house, because our side eats its young, in case you haven’t noticed.

      • Heh, why do you ask? I just expect a lot of frothing at the mouth because he dared to say that Williams was “actually, sincerely, a damned nice guy,” and that the rest were “complete gentlemen.” That’s usually the type of thing that causes reactionary anti-gov people to stop reading and immediately scroll to the bottom to post an angry diatribe about badge-licking or somesuch, thereby missing the important last paragraph.

        • You seem eager to snipe at “our own.”

          Criticize the reactionaries when they show up instead of engaging in preemptive bitter backbiting.

    • Oh my god, Matt… you DO realized that sounds like the threat is from YOU, right? Seriously, I think you should watch what you say and, more importantly, where you say it.

  13. When they send you a letter asking you to stop, it is certainly ill advised to continue until the matter has been resolved to ATFs satisfaction (not yours). Even when they are wrong, they’re right.

      • I don’t know about recommending it to anyone in the gun culture, but it’s a damn good read.

        I would like to see it released as an ebook, and it really deserves some wide publication.

        It’s a great story.

  14. when the Federal government crosses the line of tyranny and oppression, the sheeple won’t even notice.

  15. I was going to say, “I’m shocked!” but then, I came to my senses.
    Like I continually tell my liberal friends, government is not your friend,
    and anyone in government who tells you they are, is lying to your face.
    The government, law enforcement in particular, can never be your friend,
    because it conflicts with their ability to remain objective enforcing the law.
    Children, the disabled, or in your case, kindly retiree dads, are suspects,
    and potential perps who need to be scrutinized, investigated, convicted, in
    that order. Also, the Feds, unlike State Attorneys, are not restrained by a
    need to balance the expense of prosecuting vs the possibility of acquittal.
    This was related to me by a State Attorney on why he wasn’t gong to try to
    prosecute someone who filed a false police report against me, the goal of
    which, was to hopefully have me shot and killed by the police responding
    to a possible bank robbery. I’ve never seen so many police cars, and police
    with guns at the ready…for me! I’ve never done anything in my life that
    required more than maybe a stern chiding…by just a single police officer.
    The Fedgov. on the other hand, has no such limitations regarding cost of
    prosecution. Your tax dollars at work. Is your fathers remaining charge
    the only reason that could prevent you from suing them for damages,
    like wrongful prosecution? If so, and the charge is dismissed, will you?
    Or is this a time to be thankful your father was cleared, and go home?

    • Better remind the “conservatives” too. They are just as bad about being big government fans when it comes to the military and law enforcement.

  16. Nick wrote in the article, “Anyway, it turns out that the ATF agent involved in that case has a history of abusing the system to screw over gun owners.”

    … verses the rest of the ATF agents who are nice to gun owners? I think it is pretty safe to say that ALL ATF agents screw over gun owners.

    By the way Mr. Leghorn failed to STFU and spoke with the ATF. We hear quite often that we should exercise our right to remain silent during traffic stops or when the police knock on the door of our home. We should do the same when tax agents or other government agents contact us as well.

  17. from what i have read the consensus among the professional leo on the street community is the atf is “out-of-control cowboys” in the inept sense and are not trusted with sensitive info on serious cases as a result.
    maybe this is why they are stuck with chasing old suburbanites and gun nerds to make their stats.

    I’d be interested in real leo’s here comment tho.

    • The ATF is eagerly waiting for the day when firearms are outright banned from ownership. At that point any limits or restraints are lifted.

  18. It’s easier, much easier, to go after compliant, go-along-to-get-along citizens.

    The ending is correct: Our government is too damn big.

    • Perhaps our country is too big. The limited government framed in the Constitution is made for a much smaller country.

  19. A younger agent had me walk him to his car after the search where he told me, “I didn’t want to be doing this…I thought we’d be going after real bad guys.”

    Maybe he should have bothered to learn something about the criminal agency he was working for? He also could have willingly volunteered to testify on your fathers behalf to keep an innocent person from being convicted.

    Agent Williams even told me at some point he was sorry about what happened to my father.

    Given that Williams started the whole mess, likely he’s only sorry that your dad wasn’t sentenced to a few decades in prison.

    • If WTF ATF agents were actually interested in going after bad guys, they’d be arresting themselves. Preferably after a major shootout.

      • If ATF agents were interested in going after bad guys, they’d be forming a militia and preparing for the government to finally push the people too far.

  20. The Citizens need to start goin’ all Ceausescu on gov’t vipers like him.
    I’m sure the families of the gulag guards thought they were sincerely nice people too…

  21. Typical ATF over reaction, it seems. Damaging fine firearms prior to their return is particularly disturbing. I haven’t had much experience with the ATF, but I don’t trust them based on their reputation. They seem to be an entirely unnecessary agency, and I don’t believe that they would take kindly to that opinion.

    • I remember when Driver’s Licenses here in IL were made by laminating a physical photograph over a paper license. When you got a moving violation, they’d staple your license to the paperwork…and if the police didn’t like or trust you, they’d put that staple through the photo’s eyes.

  22. My only observation is his father should have been more careful, especially after they tipped their hand with a letter to him. And lower key about it.
    Maybe that sucks and seems to be giving in but legal fights are expensive and sometimes you end up with a felony.
    This is and will always be their sandbox, we are just the toys.

    • That’s right. In the end, innocent or guilty – you pay. That’s called American justice. A blindfolded woman holding a sword in one hand and a scale in the other with one side loaded with coin.

  23. the ATF is an illegal and illegitimate agency who’s purpose is to enforce federal gun control laws which are themselves illegal. from ’34 NFA to ’68 GCA to ’86 MGB, every single piece of federal gun control legislation is a direct and immediate violation of the 2nd Amendment.

  24. Anyone who reads the briefs filed in Ted Fries’ appeal before the 11th Circuit will soon realize that he’s absolutely guilty of selling a handgun to an out-of-state resident. He fully admitted to the crime on the stand before the district court. His testimony included these reasons why he shouldn’t be found guilty:

    “The out-of-state rule is not hard-and fast.”

    “That’s the neat thing about firearm laws — no one in the world seems to understand them.”

    “I don’t know what the big deal is here.”

  25. Chilling story. And yeah, the bad guy sometimes does smile… a lot.

    Lucky this guy’s a good attorney… one can only imagine the horrors that would have awaited his retired dad in federal lock up.

    Which brings us back to the #1 of dealing with the law: Hire a lawyer. A damn good one.

  26. Most of you “breaking the law” types are really mistaken. First of all, these are ATF regulations, not laws. The Constitution IS the law, and it only allows the federation “government” to regulate commerce in order to FACILITATE it, not to restrict it. This is why these people are at war against the Constitution. It is what CONSTITUTES our legal system, so if statutes and regulations oppose it, then THEY are illegal.

  27. I’m sorry but 70 shows in 2 years, renting out tables at each show, and boatload of guns with price tags on them?

    The people in all the gun shows I’ve been to who rents tables are either dealers, collectors showing off their nazi memorabilia or other non related businesses (beef jerky sellers, holster makers etc). Collectors “showing” their stuff never has price tags on anything because they’re not for sale. Heck even big dealers in my area such as shoot straight, or florida gun exchange don’t have price tags – only small mom & pop size stores do this.

    Plus he’s renting out rooms prior to shows, travelling and depositing cash money to bank accounts after the shows etc?

    I’m sorry for the legal trouble but this is a true definition of operating without a license. Not agreeing with the law is fine as long as its done in a legal way – write to your congressman/senator, petition or heck run for the position yourself. What’s wrong is “I hate this law & I will break it”.

    Good luck.

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