“I hate that fear sells so many guns”

Three days be­hind the gun counter in Las Ve­gas

Bloomberg Businessweek (North America) - - News - By Paul M. Bar­rett Pho­to­graphs by John Fran­cis Pe­ters

On a re­cent Mon­day, the Smith & Wes­son 9mm Model SD9VE hand­gun was sell­ing briskly at the West­side Ar­mory, 1,900 square feet of guns and ammo in a tidy shop­ping mall an­chored by a Vons gro­cery and also fea­tur­ing a nail salon, Star­bucks, and Buf­falo Wild Wings. The mall is 15 min­utes south­west of the Las Ve­gas Strip but feels worlds away from the gar­ish casi­nos. The store’s owner, Cameron Hop­kins, bun­dles the SD9VE with a Stream­light TLR-3 flash­light, which at­taches be­neath the bar­rel, as well as two 16-round mag­a­zines. The pack­age goes for $399.99, down from $526.70.

“It’s a night­stand pis­tol,” Hop­kins says to one po­ten­tial cus­tomer, a tall man in a blue sweat­suit. “Per­fect for home de­fense, and you can’t beat the price.” The guy pon­ders for 20 min­utes, mus­ing about the dan­ger of night­time in­trud­ers en­ter­ing his house from an ad­ja­cent golf course, and then buys one.

Hand­guns at West­side Ar­mory—glock, Smith & Wes­son, Colt, and Sig Sauer—are dis­played in waist-high glass cases. Ri­fles and shot­guns hang from the walls. To get to the firearms, cus­tomers first pass racks of hol­sters, gog­gles, ear pro­tec­tion, mag­a­zines, speed load­ers, range bags, clean­ing so­lu­tions, and pa­per tar­gets—zom­bies, gri­mac­ing thugs, Osama bin Laden. Boxes of am­mu­ni­tion line one wall, in­ter­spersed with such nov­el­ties as red-white-and-blue col­ored ce­ramic lawn gnomes bear­ing minia­ture guns and hand grenades.

The main busi­ness of West­side Ar­mory, though, is hand­guns, mostly semi­au­to­matic pis­tols, which carry am­mu­ni­tion in rec­tan­gu­lar mag­a­zines that snap into the grip. Hand­gun sales out­num­ber ri­fle and shot­gun sales by about 20 to 1, al­though some of the most ex­pen­sive items the store sells are cus­tom-made ri­fles that re­tail for $2,500 or more.

West­side Ar­mory took in $190,000 in De­cem­ber, its high­est mark since open­ing in the sum­mer of 2014. That’s con­sis­tent with a na­tion­wide boom. In De­cem­ber, the Fed­eral Bu­reau of In­ves­ti­ga­tion did a record 3.3 mil­lion back­ground checks, half a mil­lion more than the pre­vi­ous monthly high in the wake of the New­town, Conn., ele­men­tary school mas­sacre in 2012.

“It’s been this way for the last seven years,” since Pres­i­dent Obama got into of­fice, says Mike Moore, West­side’s ac­count man­ager at RSR Group, a large na­tional gun-and-am­mu­ni­tion whole­saler based in Win­ter Park, Fla. Moore and oth­ers in the in­dus­try mar­vel at the stay­ing power of what they call “the Obama surge”—el­e­vated sales driven by the (un­ful­filled) fear of tougher fed­eral gun con­trol.

“There’s four things sell­ing guns at the mo­ment,” says Rocky Fortino, one of Hop­kins’s em­ploy­ees. “One: ‘I’m afraid they’re go­ing to make it harder to buy a gun, so I bet­ter get one now.’ Two: ‘I’m afraid of home in­va­sions and other vi­o­lent crime.’ Three: ‘I’m afraid of mass shoot­ings.’ And four: ‘I’m afraid of ter­ror­ism.’” On the last con­cern, Fortino and I agree that West­side Ar­mory doesn’t re­ally of­fer much in the way of an­titer­ror­ism weaponry.

Real­ity rarely en­ters into the equa­tion of fear. Crime is ac­tu­ally down in Las Ve­gas, as it is na­tion­wide. And Pres­i­dent Obama’s most re­cent ex­ec­u­tive ac­tions on guns—an­nounc­ing in Jan­uary that his ad­min­is­tra­tion would more strictly en­force ex­ist­ing rules gov­ern­ing dealer li­cens­ing—“won’t have much prac­ti­cal ef­fect at all,” Hop­kins says. Yet any­time the pres­i­dent opens his mouth about guns, anx­i­ety jumps. “What if Obama does some­thing that makes me have to give my new gun back?” one cus­tomer asks. “I don’t think that’s likely,” sales­man Jeff Giese says, re­as­sur­ingly, as he rings up the man’s trans­ac­tion for an­other Smith & Wes­son 9mm.

Of­fer­ing firearms at a dis­count, as the West­side Ar­mory of­ten does, may in­crease the dan­ger of sus­pi­cious trans­ac­tions, es­pe­cially straw pur­chases, where some­one with a clean record buys one or more guns for a per­son pro­hib­ited by law from do­ing so. “The last thing we want to do is put a gun out there in the wrong hands,” says Fortino, a re­tired sub­ur­ban po­lice chief from Illi­nois.

With Hop­kins’s ap­proval, I spend three days ob­serv­ing from be­hind the counter at West­side Ar­mory, on the con­di­tion I won’t risk driv­ing away cus­tomers by in­ter­rupt­ing to ask to quote them by name. On the floor, I listen to the sales pat­ter and con­sumer com­ments. I ob­serve dili­gence, for the most part, about fol­low­ing the rules. And yet I also wit­ness some trou­bling slip-ups, in­clud­ing one that leads to a visit to the store by two agents from the U.S. Bu­reau of Al­co­hol, Tobacco, Firearms and Ex­plo­sives. “We’re not per­fect,” Hop­kins says.

Hop­kins, the 59-year-old co-founder of West­side Ar­mory, bought out his busi­ness part­ner last Oc­to­ber. In 2014, Las Ve­gas al­ready had 49 other gun shops, he says, but “the de­mand for new guns is there, and I saw it as a good in­vest­ment.” A ded­i­cated biggame hunter, Hop­kins has worked in the in­dus­try for 35 years as a mar­ket­ing ex­ec­u­tive, con­sul­tant, and mag­a­zine ed­i­tor. Po­lit­i­cally he’s lib­er­tar­ian; by dis­po­si­tion, he dis­plays good-hu­mored amuse­ment at an out­sider’s end­less ques­tions about the minu­tiae of his busi­ness.

With an es­ti­mated 300 mil­lion firearms al­ready in pri­vate hands and sur­veys show­ing that a third or so of Amer­i­can house­holds pos­sess a gun, one might as­sume that the con­sumer mar­ket is sat­u­rated. “It’s not,” Hop­kins says. “Gun own­ers are buy­ing more guns, and lately we’re see­ing some first-time buy­ers, too.” Dur­ing my stint in his store, I meet both types of cus­tomer. One man wear­ing a sun vi­sor says he al­ready owns a Beretta pis­tol but has his eye on the flash­light-equipped Smith & Wes­son 9mm that’s on sale. At the last minute, he changes his mind and pur­chases a five-shot S&W pocket re­volver sim­i­lar to one he once kept in the glove com­part­ment of his car. “That one got stolen,” he tells Giese, the sales­man, who nods sym­pa­thet­i­cally.

“I hope he’s more care­ful with this one,” Giese, a for­mer po­lice of­fi­cer, tells me later, “be­cause that stolen gun is be­ing used for crime.”

“I hope he’s more care­ful with this one, be­cause that stolen gun is be­ing used for crime”

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.”

Hop­kins says his sales­men sim­ply ig­nore some scruffily dressed young win­dow shop­pers, and “def­i­nitely if they smell of weed.” Sus­pect browsers typ­i­cally leave the store with­out be­ing served, he says.

That’s not ex­actly what hap­pens when two twen­tysome­thing men in droop­ing trousers and back­ward base­ball caps ask to look at Glocks. Sales­man Alec Wil­son shows them the guns and an­swers their ques­tions. “That’s a cool moth­erf---ing gun,” one says about a .40-cal­iber dis­play gun. Wil­son nods in a neu­tral fash­ion.

The ex­change takes a turn, how­ever, when one of the shop­pers asks that an in­for­mal back­ground check be done on him, “just to see if I pass.” At that point Wil­son shakes his head, puts away the dis­play weapons, and in­di­cates there will be no sale. The shop­pers, grum­bling and look­ing dis­ap­pointed, de­part empty-handed.

Wil­son tells me later that peo­ple seek to test the back­ground- check sys­tem on a daily ba­sis, pre­sum­ably to see whether some in­frac­tion from their past gets flagged. The rule is that they get sent away, the sales­man says.

But at least one ques­tion­able cus­tomer is al­lowed to buy: a man who en­ters the store and with­out paus­ing or look­ing around ex­presses in­ter­est in ac­quir­ing three iden­ti­cal Smith & Wes­son 9mm pis­tols. He vol­un­teers that one gun is for him, one for his fa­ther, and the third for his brother. Told that each prospec­tive owner should come in on their own and go through the back­ground check, the cus­tomer ex­plains that he al­ready has a Ne­vada con­cealed-carry per­mit, which en­ti­tles him by law to buy weapons with­out a point-of-sale back­ground check.

To get a con­cealed-carry per­mit, an ap­pli­cant goes through a more thor­ough in­ves­ti­ga­tion and has to com­plete an eight-hour safety course. Ul­ti­mately, the cus­tomer com­pro­mises and walks out of the store with two Smith & Wes­sons. But to my eye that still seems to be a vi­o­la­tion of the 4473 re­quire­ment that the pur­chase is be­ing made for the “ac­tual buyer of the firearm.”

Hop­kins dis­agrees: “I view that as a le­git­i­mate sale be­cause the man has a con­cealed-carry per­mit.” He goes on to note that the cus­tomer had to fill out a “mul­ti­ple sale” form, which in­forms fed­eral and lo­cal au­thor­i­ties of any pur­chase of more than one gun at a time.

Re­cently, the store made a mis­take that drew at­ten­tion from the ATF. In mid-de­cem­ber, a man in his 50s sought to buy a ri­fle and a hand­gun but en­coun­tered a de­lay on his back­ground check. Later the same day, the man’s wife at­tempted to buy the same two firearms. Aware that the cou­ple was try­ing again, Fortino nev­er­the­less put through a back­ground check for the wife, Hop­kins says. She en­coun­tered a de­lay, as well.

A week later, the gov­ern­ment de­nied both hus­band and wife per­mis­sion to buy the two weapons. The guns never left the store, but “Rocky should not have done the sec­ond back­ground check, given the cir­cum­stances,” Hop­kins con­cedes.

The sit­u­a­tion comes to light when a pair of ATF agents shows up at the store as part of their in­ves­ti­ga­tion of the hus­band and wife. The agency had flagged as sus­pi­cious a pair of de­nied back­ground checks to peo­ple with the same last name.

“The good news is the sys­tem worked,” says Hop­kins. He adds that the ATF called him in for a meet­ing he de­scribes as “shock ther­apy to make sure we un­der­stood we’d screwed up.” To en­sure it doesn’t hap­pen again, Hop­kins says he’s in­sti­tut­ing an “in­ser­vice train­ing pro­gram” to help his em­ploy­ees spot straw pur­chas­ing and other im­pro­pri­eties. ATF Spe­cial Agent He­len Dunkel de­clines to com­ment, say­ing the agency “is not al­lowed to con­firm any pos­si­ble in­ves­ti­ga­tions.”

“The vast ma­jor­ity of gun deal­ers are try­ing to do the right thing and en­force the law, but a hand­ful are neg­li­gent about straw pur­chas­ing or ac­tively look the other way,” says Jonathan Lowy, le­gal di­rec­tor at the Brady Cen­ter to Pre­vent Gun Vi­o­lence. Us­ing manda­tory se­rial numbers, the ATF can trace guns found at crime scenes back to where they were sold. “Bad ap­ple” stores tend to re­ceive a lot of crime-gun trace in­quiries, Lowy says; many stores re­ceive no traces at all. West­side so far hasn’t re­ceived a sin­gle crime-gun trace dur­ing its 18 months in busi­ness, ac­cord­ing to Hop­kins.

For the most part, crime isn’t a gun store prob­lem. Crim­i­nals as a rule “don’t stroll into a gun store and fill out a 4473,” Hop­kins says. So­cial science re­search backs him up. A study pub­lished last year by schol­ars at the Univer­sity of Chicago and Duke Univer­sity, who sur­veyed in­mates at Chicago’s Cook County jail, found that crim­i­nal of­fend­ers rarely ob­tain guns through for­mal chan­nels. Just 1 in 10 of the in­mates said they pur­chased their weapons at a gun store or pawn­shop. About 70 per­cent said they got their weapons from friends, fam­ily, or street con­nec­tions, and that firearms rou­tinely passed through mul­ti­ple own­ers.

“Back­ground checks won’t catch every­thing,” says Hop­kins. Un­der the cur­rent sys­tem, only FFLS are obliged to do the checks. “Pri­vate” sell­ers who op­er­ate at gun shows—or from their kitchen ta­bles or via the In­ter­net—don’t have to fol­low the rules, a gap some­times re­ferred to loosely as the gun-show loop­hole. In a soon-to-be-pub­lished sur­vey of more than 2,000 gun own­ers, re­searchers at the Har­vard T.H. Chan School of Pub­lic Health found that 40 per­cent said they’d most re­cently ac­quired a firearm with­out a back­ground check from a non-ffl.

Like many FFL hold­ers, Hop­kins would have no ob­jec­tion to uni­ver­sal back­ground checks for all gun trans­fers. But the NRA does, and, as a re­sult, the loop­hole will likely per­sist for a good long while. Mean­time, Hop­kins ex­pects the de­bate over the is­sue in the 2016 pres­i­den­tial elec­tion to drive more sales at West­side Ar­mory. He says he doesn’t rel­ish the can­di­dacy of a Hil­lary Clin­ton or Bernie San­ders, the two Demo­cratic hope­fuls, in­spir­ing shop­ping sprees, but busi­ness is busi­ness, af­ter all. <BW>

“The vast ma­jor­ity of gun deal­ers tryin­gare to do the right thing and en­force the law, but a hand­ful are neg­li­gent”

Fortino, a West­side Ar­mory em­ployee, pre­pares a back­ground check

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