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Gun rack at gun show
Politics and Economy:
Gun Land
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Overview from the Producer

President Bush will soon put his signature on the Homeland Security Bill. And that will set into motion new government efforts that will eventually ask all of us to sacrifice in the fight against terrorism. How big a sacrifice? Conservative columnist William Safire painted a startling picture this week in THE NEW YORK TIMES. He warns that the bill could mean the creation of a vast government dossier — with total information on every U.S citizen including every credit card purchase, medical prescription, bank deposit, web click...and much more.

But a double standard has emerged here. Not even the War on Terror is sufficient to cause Congress or the White House to curtail the privacy of gun owners, or to close the loopholes in our gun laws that terrorists exploit to arm themselves.

Producer Orianna Zill de Granados offers more information about several aspects of this story: Additional cases of terrorists purchasing guns in the United States; Ballistic fingerprinting and the sniper case; WALL STREET JOURNAL reporter Danny Pearl and Sheik Jilani.


    1) ELN (NATIONAL LIBERATION ARMY) OF COLOMBIA -- The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms (ATF) and US Customs have a recent case involving weapons purchased in the US being trafficked to the ELN Guerilla movement in Colombia. The case was started after the Colombian government seized 17 assault weapons (copies of the AK-47) from the ELN guerillas. They requested a trace of the guns from the ATF here in the United States. The guns had been sold to a Walter Macias in 1995 at a Florida gun store, Garcia National. In the initial investigation, officials could not find Walter Macias in the United States, despite the fact that he used a Florida driver's license to purchase the weapons. After a second seizure of weapons in 1997, which were traced back to Walter and Carlos Macias, authorities realized that the Macias family was trafficking in firearms. The ATF Agents checked other gun stores in the area and asked gun store owners to alert them if they heard from the Macias brothers again. One local gun dealer did call and alerted the authorities to an upcoming sale of 30 assault weapons. A co-conspirator to the Macias brothers eventually paid $65,000 in cash for 30 assault weapons and attempted to illegally ship them to Colombia. He was arrested by the ATF here in the United States and the Macias brothers were arrested by authorities in Colombia. ATF officials say this case is not unique and they have seen guns going to the FARC (Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia), the ELN and the paramilitary organizations in Colombia, all of which are on the US terrorism watch list.

    2) THE IRISH REPUBLICAN ARMY -- Conor Claxton, a self-proclaimed member of the IRA, traveled to Southern Florida several years ago and recruited several other people to purchase handguns for him. He then illegally shipped them to Ireland for use by the Provisional IRA. Claxton's co-conspirators went to gun stores and gun shows and eventually found a private seller to sell them large quantities of hand guns without any background checks or reporting requirements to the ATF. Dozens of the guns reached the IRA before officials became aware of the plot. The British government contacted the US after they seized several of the guns and the ATF realized it had already been watching one of the gun purchasers because of suspicious multiple purchases. The investigation led to the arrest and prosecution of four people in Fort Lauderdale, FL.

    3) THE HEZBOLLAH -- ATF agents arrested Ali Boumelhem, 35, in November 2000 and accused him of shipping guns and ammunition to Hezbollah militants in Lebanon, allegedly hiding the arms in cargo crates. Federal agents say they watched Boumelhem, a resident of Detroit and Beirut, travel to gun shows to buy gun parts and ammunition for shipment overseas. Boumelhem was arrested by the FBI's joint terrorism task force, just before he was scheduled to travel to Lebanon, authorities said. He is accused of being a leader in Amal, a Lebanese militia organization, and a sympathizer with Hezbollah.


    Police often find shell casings and spent cartridges at crime scenes. The technology now exists to trace those cartridges back to a specific gun, but would require the cooperation of gun manufacturers. The gun makers would have to keep a test fire from each gun made and link that spent cartridge to the serial number of the gun. The unique markings on this cartridge would then be digitized using laser imaging. Then, in a case like the sniper case in Washington, DC, police could trace the cartridge back to a specific gun. When they have a serial number for the gun, they can trace the gun back to the original purchaser and this often provides concrete leads for the criminal investigation.

    While this is a complicated process, two states, New York and Maryland, already have laws putting this system into practice. The sniper case spurred enormous interest in further developing this process for a nationwide ballistics fingerprinting system.

    Read more on this debate:


    When Danny Pearl, the WALL STREET JOURNAL reporter, was abducted in Pakistan, he was on his way to try to visit the leader of the Jamaat al Fuqra group, Sheik Mubarak Jilani. Al Fuqra is one of the suspected terrorist groups mentioned in GUN LAND. Pearl was doing research on Richard Reid, the shoe-bomb suspect, and was following a lead that Reid had studied and trained under Jilani at his compound in Lahore, Pakistan.

    Pearl had gone to the US Embassy to discuss trying to find Jilani in Pakistan and was warned by Embassy officials to not pursue an interview with Jilani by himself. After Pearl's abduction, Jilani himself was arrested in Pakistan but was later released and is not considered to be involved with Pearl's death.

    Sheik Jilani himself has long-standing connections with the Pakistani intelligence service, the ISI, and has been linked to another Pakistani terrorist group, Harkat-ul-Mujahidden. Jamaat al Fuqra targeted African-American Muslims in the United States to combat those who they consider enemies — Hindus, Jews, and Muslims who stray from a conservative religious practices. Jilani's motto -- "to purify Islam through violence."

  • Sources: The Associated Press and THE NEW YORK TIMES, THE WALL STREET JOURNAL, and others.

    GUN LAND is a continuation of research which began with KQED/CIR's own hour-long documentary, GUN SHOTS, which looked at how illegal guns get into the hands of criminals in United States.

    GUN LAND is a NOW with Bill Moyers co-production of KQED and the Center for Investigative Reporting.

    More on this story, "The Guns of Opa-Locka" by Jake Bergman and Julia Reynolds, appears in the December 2, 2002 issue of THE NATION magazine.

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