By Alex Distefano
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Her husband agrees, but he gestures to the bars on the shop windows across the street and shakes his head. "We don't have bars on our store windows in Georgia," he explains. "And it's because an honest and responsible citizen can carry a firearm."
You can take the man out of his gun shop, but apparently you can't take the gun shop out of the man.
"If New Yorkers want to be without firearms, more power to them," Wallace says, looking out to Flatbush Avenue, where a Hot 97 truck rolls past. "When in Rome, I'll act as a Roman. But don't come to my backyard and tell me how to run my business."
Convinced that lax gun-shop owners were making illegal sales of firearms to criminals who would then traffic them to New York City, the Bloomberg administration in 2006 hired an investigative firm to make a series of "straw purchases" in gun shops mostly in the South.
Federal law prohibits individuals from buying guns for people who are banned from buying them on their own, but the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives estimates that more than half of the trafficked guns used by criminals aged 18 to 24 are obtained this way. (An ATF spokeswoman says the agency has no way of knowing the total number of guns trafficked in the country.)
To prove that dealers were ignoring the law and were lax when it came to screening buyers, the city hired the Manhattan-based James Mintz Group and arranged for two investigators to pose as a couple and act out the classic straw-purchase scenario: The woman fills out the paperwork in her name, but behaves as if the gun is actually for the man, who asks all the questions about the weapon and lays down the cash for it. (Fifteen dealers who refused to sell a gun to the undercover agents weren't sued.)
Wallace swears that his employees— one of them is his son Eric—followed ATF guidelines when the investigators came to his store. He says the clerks were suspicious of the agents, but eventually decided, after some questioning, that they were legitimate buyers.
Wallace sells about 5,000 guns a year at his store, Adventure Outdoors. Since 1994, 62 of the guns purchased there have been recovered by the NYPD, according to Eric Proshansky, the lawyer for the city. Most were trafficked here, and a handful were used in violent crimes.
Though Wallace is convinced that he didn't violate the law, he backed out of the civil trial on June 2, citing the liberal bias of longtime federal judge Jack Weinstein, a 1967 Lyndon B. Johnson appointee. Weinstein, who has ruled against the gun industry in previous cases, had decided to empanel an "advisory jury" in the case. The jury's decision wouldn't be binding, and Weinstein would be the final arbiter in the case.
"When they took away our constitutional jury," says Cecilia, "we could see the writing on the wall."
Because the Wallaces refused to take part in the trial, a city magistrate judge can issue a "default judgment," which the Wallaces plan to appeal. (A devout Methodist, Wallace spoke of the appeal as the best chance for David to fight Goliath: "I'm putting my stone in my sling. And my sling is called the Second Circuit.")
About 75 percent of guns found in New York come from out of state—via the so-called "iron pipeline"—with the top source states being Pennsylvania, Virginia, North Carolina, and Georgia, according to the ATF. Legislative obstacles set up by the powerful firearms lobby and its supporters in Congress have prevented the city from gaining access to a national ATF gun database, making it tough to trace guns to out-of-state dealers. Since 2002, the Tiahrt Amendment—named after the Kansas Republican Todd Tiahrt—has blocked access to the database for use in civil lawsuits.
Supporters of the amendment say that it protects the confidentiality of gun purchasers and doesn't inhibit law-enforcement efforts. When the Senate voted to renew the law last summer, Bloomberg—who sits at the helm of Mayors Against Illegal Guns, a group of 320 mayors crusading for reform in firearms regulation—called it a "slap in the face to the men and women who put on a uniform and risk their lives every day."
Stymied by the Tiahrt Amendment, the city adopted another strategy, obtaining a court order that required Adventure Outdoors and other dealers to offer up the serial numbers of all the guns sold over the past seven years. It then matched the numbers with those collected by the NYPD.
Bloomberg's lawsuits against out-of-state dealers are the first of their kind in the nation. (The suits sought no monetary damages—the sole aim was to place monitors in the shops to observe sales.) Previous attempts to curb gun trafficking to the city tended to focus on gun manufacturers and distributors, but those efforts have largely collapsed in recent years. In 2000, New York joined other cities, such as San Francisco and Boston, when they sued gun manufacturers such as Beretta USA, Browning Arms, Colt's Manufacturing, Glock, and Smith & Wesson. By 2005, those lawsuits were tanking, says Daniel Webster, who directs the Johns Hopkins Center for Gun Policy & Research and was an expert witness for the city. Courts weren't accepting the cities' contention that the manufacturers should be held liable for dealers who sold guns to criminals, or for guns used in criminal acts. And a 2005 law, the Protection of Lawful Commerce in Arms Act, has made it all but impossible to sue manufacturers.