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Corrupt Dealers Expose Weakness in Gun Laws

Crime: Thousands of weapons reach criminals through licensed sellers. Lenient sentencing hampers prosecution.

June 01, 2000|MYRON LEVIN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Riverside police officer Mike Pelissero survived his close call with a weapon sold illegally by B and E Guns. A drug suspect fired at him and missed--then the gun jammed.

At least two homicide victims were less fortunate, killed by guns that reached the street through B and E of Cypress, which operated for years despite repeated violations of federal law. The gun merchant, formerly one of the state's highest-volume dealers, had illegally falsified records to conceal transfers of thousands of firearms, according to court documents and records obtained by The Times under the Freedom of Information Act.

The B and E case and others like it show how unscrupulous dealers, with the imprimatur of a federal firearms license, can be enablers of gun violence on a large scale. Such dealers can be difficult to put out of business or to prosecute, and when convicted they can expect far more lenient treatment than the crooks who buy their wares.

Gun-rights groups blame such illegal gun dealing on lax enforcement of existing laws. But legal experts say the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms and federal prosecutors have been hamstrung by limited manpower, by loopholes in the gun laws and by federal sentencing guidelines that punish convicted felons with serious prison time simply for owning a gun but treat arms trafficking as a relatively minor offense--less serious, for example, than possessing a small amount of crack cocaine with intent to sell, or sending a child pornography image over the Internet.

"It is an anomaly of the way the federal sentencing system works," said Bradley A. Buckles, the head of ATF.

President Clinton's crusade for a preventive approach to gun violence has brought such infirmities into sharper focus. For the better part of 30 years, firearms enforcers have put their energies into locking up gun-toting criminals one at a time, rather than focusing on the role of illegal suppliers.

That approach stemmed, in part, from the view that guns almost invariably fell into the hands of criminals through thefts from homes and firearms stores, making the supply nearly impossible to control. In recent years, however, a wealth of gun-tracing data has highlighted the importance of direct purchases from licensed dealers--whether by straw buyers who illegally transfer guns to criminal associates, or through deliberate complicity by dealers.

Besides targeting armed thugs, "we're trying to go after the criminal behind the criminal--the illegal gun trafficker," said James E. Johnson, deputy undersecretary for enforcement at the U.S. Treasury Department, of which ATF is a part.

But the strategy has exposed weaknesses in oversight of the firearms trade, which were evident in the B and E case.

Julius Wachtell, a former special agent with ATF, recalled B and E as "the largest corrupt dealer case that we had ever worked in Southern California." This was not evident from the handling of the case, however.

Although the violations were systematic and exposed by two separate ATF investigations in the 1980s and '90s, B and E both times was able to stay in business. And though two key figures in the scheme were eventually convicted of violating federal firearms laws, they were allowed to plea bargain their sentences to a year in prison and a year of home detention, respectively.

Dealers Got Around License Revocation

B and E was owned by Robert and Esperanza Komor, who did not respond to interview requests for this story. Their gun business first hit the radar screen in 1989 when it was run from their Lakewood home.

Federal law requires gun dealers to keep accurate records of all firearms they buy from distributors and sell to the public--a rule meant to stop sales to juveniles and crooks and to create a paper trail when a gun later turns up in a crime.

Inspectors found that B and E had falsified records to conceal who was getting its guns--and from 1986 to 1989 had transferred more than 4,000 guns without keeping any records at all. According to their findings, at least some of these guns were illegally supplied to felons, juveniles and foregin nationals.

Such offenses can be prosecuted as felonies, but no charges were filed. Instead, ATF revoked the federal firearms license of B and E's Robert Komor. But B and E found an easy escape. By the time Robert Komor had his license revoked, his wife, Esperanza, had taken out a new license in her name to keep B and E afloat.

ATF officials said that their hands were tied because federal law gives them little discretion--stating that a firearms license shall be issued to any adult nonfelon who has not willfully violated gun laws.

Other gun dealers have taken the same approach as B and E. When Romulo A. Reclusado, operator of RNJ Guns & Ammo in Carson, was convicted a few years ago of illegally selling machine guns, his wife took out a license in her name.

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