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 . . .
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.