Would You Like Hollow Points With That?
Three days behind the gun counter in Las Vegas
Jay and April Randazzo are looking at a Glock 43, a sleek little 9mm six-shot pistol designed for people who take their gun with them to work and on errands. Jay plans to obtain a Nevada concealed-carry permit that will allow him to keep the Glock in a holster when he makes his rounds as a Coors delivery-truck driver. “Better safe than sorry,” he tells me after agreeing to be interviewed. April already owns a larger Glock 19, which she keeps at home. They pay $419.99 plus tax for the Glock 43. “It doesn’t matter whether you live in a gated community or not,” April says. “There are burglaries all the time.”
As a statistical matter, Las Vegas enjoyed a 48 percent decline in crime from 2004 through 2014, the most recent year for which statistics are available. The burglary rate declined 37 percent during that time; the murder rate, 44 percent. That said, Las Vegas has a higher-than-average violent crime index compared with other large cities.
“I hate that fear sells so many guns,” Hopkins says. In fact, his advertising stresses insecurity. “Your home is your castle. Defend it against the barbarians,” said one recent Westside ad for a $599.99 Smith & Wesson M&P AR-15 rifle equipped with a 30-round Magpul magazine. Asked about the contradiction, Hopkins says, “In the end, I guess I’m just a capitalist.”
Most of the rifles on Westside’s racks are military-style semiautomatic AR-15s, which accommodate 20- or 30-round magazines. These weapons fire one round per trigger pull, as do semiautomatic pistols. Popular with mass murderers for their large ammo capacity but rarely turning up in ordinary street crime, AR-15s are used legally for competition, home defense, and, to some degree, hunting. When liberals talk about banning assault rifles, they’re referring to AR-15s.
During my time in the Westside Armory, only one customer inquires about a rifle: A professional violinist brings in his AK-47 to get the scope adjusted. He says he uses the semiautomatic gun, which derives from the famous Russian military model, for target shooting at local ranges. “I don’t know much about how it works,” he explains. The scope gets fixed at no charge.
Hopkins has a Federal Firearms License, or FFL, to operate Westside Armory. FFL holders have to perform background checks; gun transfers by unlicensed sellers don’t require a background check. Hopkins’s employees need no special license or certification to work at the store. Westside also has a special federal license that allows it to assemble and sell fully automatic machine guns, which can fire a stream of bullets for as long as the trigger is depressed. Under U.S. law, machine guns can be sold only to law enforcement agencies or other holders of the difficultto-obtain license. As a practical matter, ordinary citizens can’t purchase a machine gun, but there are about 150,000 in private circulation among licensees. Crimes committed with machine guns are almost unheard of.
Hopkins divides his time between the store and a separate ammunition-supply business he operates. He recently purchased the trademark for a long-defunct hollow-point ammo brand called Super Vel, which he plans to revive with retro ’60s packaging. “For some people, nostalgia sells guns and ammo, just like it sells cars or clothing,” he explains.
The persistence of demand for firearms in the U.S.
becomes the subject of a get-together at the store with Stuart Anderson Wheeler, a visiting fellow big-game hunter who runs an eponymous business in London that manufactures bespoke hunting guns. Anderson Wheeler finds American gun culture perplexing, especially the shrill tone of the National Rifle Association. “I mean, all the talk of terrorism and shootings—it’s pretty extreme. Can they be serious?” he asks. “They know what sells,” says Hopkins. “I’m all for guns,” Anderson Wheeler responds. “But how many does a person need?”
“You Brits don’t have our traditions,” Hopkins says. “To Americans, owning a gun is a connection back to the settling of the Western frontier: cowboys and Indians and all that.”
“And fear,” says Anderson Wheeler.
Hopkins and his employees unfailingly do background checks but admit the protections aren’t foolproof. The background check begins with customers filling out ATF Form 4473, which requires them to swear they aren’t the subject of a felony indictment or conviction; a fugitive, a user of illegal drugs, or someone who’s been “adjudicated” a danger to themselves or others as a result of “mental defect”; or the subject of a dishonorable military discharge, a misdemeanor conviction for a crime of domestic violence, or a domestic-violence restraining order. Also barred are aliens illegally in the U.S. and anyone who’s ever renounced U.S. citizenship. Lying on a 4473 is a felony.
Once the customer has signed the form, the gun store salesman makes a phone call to the FBI or, in some states, including Nevada, to a state law enforcement agency that takes responsibility for combing through computerized crime and mental health records. The phone checks take anywhere from 5 to 45 minutes and yield one of three results: proceed, denied, or delayed. A delay occurs when the FBI or state authority wants more time to assess local records, which sometimes are difficult to find because they haven’t been digitized. If a delay isn’t resolved within 72 hours, federal law allows the firearm sale to proceed.
The potential consequences of completing a sale after an unresolved background check were made clear last June in South Carolina. Dylann Roof, the man accused of killing nine people in a historically black church in Charleston, was able to buy the .45-caliber Glock pistol he used in the attack after the three-day deadline expired. The FBI disclosed in July that it delayed the transaction to scrutinize Roof’s state arrest record. But the FBI examiner didn’t discover Roof had admitted to possession of a controlled substance—a basis for denial of a firearm—until after the three-day deadline.
Regardless of the 72-hour rule, Westside Armory, like Walmart, won’t sell a weapon without a background-check approval. “It’s not worth the risk,” says Hopkins. “Not all of my competitors follow the same ethics.”
More generally, he says he instructs his salesmen to refrain from selling guns to anyone they suspect may be up to no good. Store manager Bradford Barnes says he refused to sell a pair of handguns to a young man 15 minutes before closing time last New Year’s Eve. “Didn’t smell right to me,” he says. “That’s just a weird time to go out shopping for two guns.”
Fortino, a Westside Armory employee, prepares a background check