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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.


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  1. That’s pretty much what they did to Randy Weaver. Then the Clinton administration and the press decided that since he may have been racist it was ok to massacre his family.

  2. I’m shocked — shocked! — that any Federal agency, much less one with the stellar reputation of the ATF, would do anything that is illegal, immoral or even fattening. And to our guy Ike, who I like, “no criminal intent” is not a defense. Maybe the gunwalking morons at ATF had no criminal intent, but so what? Their balls are in the soup anyway, and the pot is boiling.

  3. Status quo for any large organization, government or not.

    They make up the rules of the game. The employees are incentivized to battle ‘outsiders’ and win tenure/money/power/prestige.

    Most employees will plod along with some semblance of decency and reason. But there are always the performers who are going to win, regardless of cost. Especially to outsiders. Or the rules.

    Wall Street, K Street, Crystal City or the Puzzle Palace, the game is always the same. If you want good behaviour you must incentivize it, and punish transgressors harshly. If you do as we do now, richly rewarding rule breakers and not punishing them but sweeping bad deeds under the carpet, you get these very predictable results.

  4. Periodic amnesties were authorized by law in 1968, but since the since the original 1968 Amnesty, ATF has consistently opposed additional amnesty periods for registration of machine guns and other firearms requiring registration. Why? In ATF’s own words,

    “Pending investigations and prosecutions for violations of the NFA might have to be terminated.”

    “Amnesty would provide the criminally inclined an opportunity to possess unregistered weapons with impunity.”

    “A new amnesty for registering machineguns, bombs, grenades, silencers, etc., will be perceived as a retreat by the Administration from its position of favoring stronger gun controls, _e.g._, banning the possession of semiautomatic assault weapons. ”

    “An upsurge in the making of NFA weapons, particularly short-barreled shotguns, can be expected as individuals seize the opportunity to acquire NFA weapons without incurring the $200 making tax. Also, the $200 transfer tax would be avoided by unlawful transfers to persons who would register the weapons during the amnesty. ”

    “It would create ill-will on the part of persons who have been prosecuted for possession of unregistered NFA weapons, had their weapons seized, or voluntarily abandoned their weapons to ATF in the past. ” [This is good….. I suspect these folks already feel a LOT of “ill-will” toward ATF!]

    “A new amnesty would reward those who have unlawfully stockpiled unregistered contraband in anticipation of registering them during a future amnesty and encourage people to retain or acquire unregistered firearms in the expectation of other such periods. ”

    To this, we answer with a resounding, “So What?”. Obviously ATF would prefer to prosecute people……

  5. Obama apointing new head of Atf want see guy get grill at congressional hearing on Fast and Furious. But gone bet what gone happen after new guy take head desk at Atf he tell ever one make sweeping changes at Atf than runs same way all other guy before him where doing well sweeping Fast and Furious under goverment rug. I would be suprise that files Fast and Furious end up being put through shredder or ink out labble classified.

  6. Why didn’t he just register the weapons and buy tax stamps for them? With tax stamps the weapons would be totally legal. Without tax stamps they would be totally illegal, and welding the barrels would not necessarily correct that.

    • Registering a live machine gun wasn’t so simple back in those early days – and is impossible today. A call to the ATF office back then would most likely result in an unwelcome visit and seizure of the gun you just bought, along with the threat of a jail sentence.

      The collectors in the story would have been happy to register the guns, but that option wasn’t open to them – although we found out later that there was a way. But then (as now), ATF had no interest in helping collectors.

      Welding the barrel using the proscribed technique did make the gun a legit DEWAT, which was totally uncontrolled in those days. You could buy a DEWAT with no paperwork from an ad in Shotgun News. Times have changed…..

  7. My father and grandfather owned NFA firearms in this time frame. It required a federal background check, a letter of endorsement from a local LEO, and the purchase of a $200 tax stamp for each weapon. This is what reputable collectors and dealers did, because the weapons could not be legally bought or sold otherwise. How can you expect to maintain a reputable business trading in illegal merchandise? That seems naive to me.

    By the way, knowing the law and then deliberately breaking it anyway is criminal intent. The fellow above may not have intended to hurt anyone, but he did intend to break the law.

    • I stand corrected…. Technically, these collectors were probably guilty of criminal intent – like underage beer drinking, they knew buying unregistered machine guns was against the law. Perhaps their actions might better be called “victimless crimes”, since no one was harmed by their actions. Actually, this could also be called “for the Public Good”, since these machine guns were taken “off the streets” and kept out of the hands of real criminals (such as the Kansas City Mob).

      By the way, in those days, the Mob would occasionally shoot up a store front in Kansas City, when the “Protection Money” wasn’t paid…..

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