Interview with Julius Wachtel


Special Agent in Charge of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearm's Long Beach office. A 20 year veteran with the ATF, he is an expert on the sources of crime guns.

Q: Explain how illegal guns are sold...

Wachtel: These guns are five guns that were recovered from an illegal alien about 12 hours after we began following a trail of about 32 guns that were purchased from a licensed distributor by someone using a federal firearms license. In this case a person with a federal firearms license allowed two unlicensed street dealers to utilize the license to acquire upwards of 1300 guns over a period of about 6 or 7 months. These guns were then resold by these unlicensed street dealers, largely top business men, who then put the guns out on the street.

"We think very few people in the [gundealer] industry are actually corrupt. But because of...the ready access to guns that a license confers, even very few people can have a tremendous impact on crime guns." ....We probably have more than a hundred that we know of [that] were recovered in crimes, some very quickly, after they were sold by the distributor. One of the guns was recovered within 4 days of its initial sale.

Q: We always hear about the bad guys stealing the guns to commit the crimes. That's not what happened here.

Wachtel: Well not in this case. I mean certainly stolen guns are a factor but they're the factor that people can only suppose. We estimate that about 10-15% [of guns] recovered by police in Southern California are in fact stolen guns.

Q: And the others?

Wachtel: Well the rest come from a variety of sources. We have 5 principal sources the firearms come from. Of the guns that we can trace-- we can only trace perhaps 50% of the firearms that are recovered on the street--Of those, approximately 14-18% are actually recovered from the person who originally bought the gun at retail, from the first retail customer.

About 20-25% are guns that have simply passed through a number of hands; family, friends, other people whom the possessor might know. A large number of firearms are actually straw purchased. And by that we mean a person who may be prohibited by federal or state law from acquiring firearms simply has someone that they know go out and buy a gun on their behalf. And we feel this is probably the predominant way in which guns hit the street and then are recovered by the police. And we also have a mix. We have unlicensed street traffickers, which were involved in this case, and one of their major sources of firearms is the corrupt federal firearms licensee who for a premium is willing at times to deliver perhaps large quantities of guns to people who don't have a federal firearms license who in turn market them on the street.

Q: So contrary to what people think it's often times people within the industry in some way that feed guns into the illicit market...

Wachtel: Well, it happens you know. We talk about the few rotten apples. We think very few people in the industry are actually corrupt, but because of their availability, because of the ready access to guns that a license confers, even very few people can have a tremendous impact on crime guns.

Q: Show me more about these guns.

Wachtel: Well this gun right here is a Lorcin pistol. It's a model L-380, 380 caliber. I believe this is the most frequently traced firearm by ATF currently, this particular firearm. It's a relatively inexpensive .380 caliber pistol.

Q: How powerful is a .380 pistol?

Wachtel: I would say this would kill you just as quick as a .45. It's a fairly well-made gun...They have pretty good heft and balance, [though] not the craftsmanship, and some of the materials and internal parts...will not hold up as well as an expensive firearm but certainly for the short-term it's an adequate weapon.

Q: How much would it sell for?

Wachtel: Well, the retail price on a gun like this would be somewhere around $125. In the illicit marketplace if you can buy this gun new but without filling out paperwork you'd probably be paying $250 maybe $300 for it on the street

Q: Why is the Lorcin-380 the most frequently traced gun by the ATF?

Wachtel: Well, the ATF National Tracing Center traces firearms that are recovered by police throughout the country, and they keep statistics on the make/models of firearms that are recovered. And currently this gun is the gun that is most frequently submitted by law enforcement agencies for purposes of being traced.

Q: So is it fair to say that that's the gun that is most frequently used in crime?

Wachtel: Well, I don't know that there's a direct correlation between that. We have reason to believe that [of] the guns most frequently used in crime now, it has actually climbed to the 9mm pistols. But certainly the Lorcin-380 and other relatively inexpensive .380 caliber and 9mm pistols are very frequently used in crimes...The Lorcin's happen to be one of them.

Q: Why [is it] so easy to get guns on the streets in southern California...Where are all these guns coming from in the illicit market...?

Wachtel: Well, in southern California there's a tremendous demand for guns that are off paper. Police in southern California recover 35 to 40,000 guns every year. And many of these guns are obviously being recovered from crimes. Approximately 18% are recovered from violent crimes. The balance are recovered from other situations. I would say 50 or 60% are guns that are just recovered from somebody's back pocket or perhaps a loaded gun in a vehicle. But these guns are the guns that are most at risk because they're being recovered on the street. They also tend, for the same reason to be the guns who are most diverted from normal commercial channels. Because a lot of the people who wind up carrying guns on the street, they don't want to go on record as being a gun purchaser so they will have to turn to places other than the legitimate market to acquire their firearms and that's where we come in.

Q: Where do the people selling guns on the illicit market get their supply?

Wachtel: Well, the gun most favored in the illicit market place is the new unblemished .380 caliber or 9mm pistol. And there's only two ways that you're going to be able to acquire quantities of these kinds of weapons. One is by going to either a federal firearms dealer or distributor, if you have a federal firearms license, and buying these guns or you're going to steal them from a federal firearms licensee. There's really no third way of getting 'em.

So the unlicensed street dealers who are often pedaling these guns will try to find a corrupt licensee. Someone who is willing to pass on quantities of guns to them but not keep any paperwork. We also have a problem with straw purchasers, people who buy guns on behalf of others. A lot of these episodes are just one friend buying guns, a gun for someone who is perhaps a felon or a juvenile. Some episodes are almost commercial acts of straw purchases where you have three of four people, for example gang members, getting together, going to perhaps a legitimate dealer in a remote location and buying quantities over time.

We recently had one case where four people went to a store in Riverside County; they were gang members from the Los Angeles area, and over a period of about four months acquired more than 150 new pistols. These quickly came back to Los Angeles and immediately started getting picked up in crimes.

Q: [And] they bought the guns legally?

Wachtel: Absolutely. And the seller was in no way involved in the scheme. The seller was given identification that appeared to be genuine and in fact in three of the four instances people actually used their own names and used totally genuine identification. In one case they used a genuine California driver's license that had been issued under a fictitious name. That's currently quite a severe problem. And the guns came back and they just started getting picked up in crimes.

Q: Why would someone be buying a gun for the short-term?

Wachtel: Well, if you're a crook and you have a piece with [you] to do whatever you're gonna do you [are] probably not intending on keeping the weapon as a keepsake and you don't have the intention of a legitimate person keeping it at home for protection. You're probably just going to carry it on the street, use it if you have to and then dump it. And certainly not much sense to be buying real expensive guns and dumping those all the time when you have something that's probably equally lethal and will function for a period of time, certainly long enough to achieve whatever purpose you intend.

Q: So this gun is best suited for crime?

Wachtel: Well, I wouldn't say that. Let's just say that this kind of gun falls within the price range that someone who is intending on using a gun for a short-period of time and may then get rid of the gun...

Q: If you're trying to figure out where a man ends up with a gun illegally,...how can it get from southern California to New York without there being any record of it?

Wachtel: The illegal gun market has many paths for gun re-distribution. One path is the illicit firearms dealer. Someone who is not licensed who goes out and acquires [large numbers of] guns at retail perhaps using their own identification, perhaps using a phony name. When the tracing process hits the first retail dealer, the retail dealer looks at his records, says the gun was sold to so-and-so but so-and-so may in fact not exist. Other paths to illegal gun possession include the corrupt firearms dealer. It doesn't take a lot of corrupt firearms dealers to create a very sizable problem.

We feel that there's very few of them but they have access to such large numbers of guns that if the corrupt dealer decided that they're going to traffic say 1300, 1700 guns, they can obtain them quickly within a period of days, of months and they can then put 'em out on the street without keeping any records. Now when ATF contacts that dealer, if you can even find them, the dealer is very likely to either not respond or to respond with erroneous information.

Q: Once a gun gets out on the street, is it a difficult process for it to find a consumer...?

Wachtel: No. They turn over very quickly. These guns that I have in front of me, these five firearms went through 3 sets of hands within twelve hours. And I can tell you that because we watched them. They went from a corrupt dealer to two unlicensed street dealers, to a business man and to the end user who was an illegal alien and we caught this illegal alien as he was in turn trying to resell the guns to some of his friends. This all happened within the space of a day.

Q: These illicit gun dealers are they experienced? Is this an organized activity?

Wachtel: No it's really not and it really doesn't have to be. There's such a tremendous replacement demand for firearms. 35 to 40,000 guns are recovered every year in southern California. So, there's a tremendous market. So, it's relatively easy for a person who doesn't have a federal firearms license to try to set themselves up in some kind of a street gun business.

Now that person's problem of course, is going to be finding a source of supply for the kinds of guns that people want most. And those are the new .380 caliber and 9mm caliber pistols. Quite often this street dealer will try to find a corrupt licensee, someone who is willing to sell him quantities of these guns without keeping any records, thereby bypassing the ATF trace process. Now certainly the corrupt licensee is going to be at some risk and we have very few corrupt licensees but apparently there are a few that are just willing to roll the dice that ATF is not going to be conducting an inspection and asking them, "What happened to all these guns."

Q: You talked a little bit about the how the tracing process works in general in trying to find a gun...why is it all done annually?

Wachtel: Well, the law does not permit ATF to register firearms sales. Federal firearms records have to be maintained at the dealers premises until the dealer goes out of business then those records are transmitted to ATF because of the way the records are maintained the only means for getting at 'em is to contact the record keeper whether it's a manufacturer, distributor or retail dealer.

Q: Isn't that inefficient?

Wachtel: Well, it's only inefficient if there's an option and there is no option. ATF has done pretty well at the National Tracing Center in attempting to automate that process as much as possible. By using fax machines, by using computers at the Tracing Center but still the name of a gun purchaser is never recorded on a central database, it remains with the dealer.

Q: Just from a sort of practical accounting point of view [doesn't that] make it harder to trace a gun?

Wachtel: Well, possibly so but these are not just questions of efficiency. These are questions of public policy, and the public policy that Congress has come up with is that records of firearms sales should be maintained at the licensed premises and there should be no central repository of these maintained by the federal government. Now states are not precluded from having registration and transfer requirements and some such as California do.

Q: How often, what percentage of the time is ATF, through its trace, able to find the actual person who possesses the gun?

Wachtel: Well in approximately half of the traces that send from Los Angeles, ATF National Tracing Center is able to identify the first retail dealer...ATF doesn't usually seek to find a possessor of the gun. What we normally do is we turn the information over to local authorities.

Q: So you'll give the local authority the retail store that it was sold at and then it's up to them to find the guy?

Wachtel: Well, we'll give them the name of the retail store and the name of the purchaser as identified to the tracing center by the retail store, and then the local police can go try to find that person and perhaps tie them in to the firearm...

About 14% of the firearms that are recovered by Los Angeles police are recovered from the person who originally bought that gun at retail. Now law enforcement agencies in California do not have to always rely on ATF to trace handguns because legal handgun transactions in California are registered in a state-wide database. That is the first place that California law enforcement officers will turn to in order to identify the purchaser of a handgun. If they cannot find the information in the state database or if the gun is not a handgun, for example a rifle or a shotgun, then they have to rely on our national tracing center and about 50% of the traces sent to the National Tracing Center are able to successfully identify the first retail dealer of the firearm.

Q: you say that the Lorcin .380 shows up at the top of the trace,but aren't a lot more of the high quality expensive guns traced every year?

Wachtel: More inexpensive .380 caliber and 9mm pistols seem to be recovered in proportion to the rate of manufacture than the expensive firearms.

Q: What does that mean?

Wachtel: Well, for example, Smith and Wesson is a very large gun maker. They probably make about 3-4 times as many 9mm pistols as a manufacturer who perhaps makes inexpensive weapons. Yet those inexpensive [guns] are equally as likely or even more likely to be recovered in a crime.

Q: So what does that tell us?

Wachtel: Well that tells us what the preference, what the gun of choice is for people who intend on misusing a firearm and the gun of choice, and this is not just ATF data, this [is] pretty well known around the country, is a relatively inexpensive .380 caliber or 9mm pistol.

Q:...[S]ome of the manufacturers of the inexpensive handguns say that, that's not the case. That indeed their guns show up more because they sell so many more. Do they have a point?

Wachtel: Well, certainly overall they don't sell more. I mean the larger manufacturers for example, Smith and Wesson sell several times more 9mm pistols than manufactures who make the less expensive firearms.

Q: You did a tracing study of guns in southern California in 1994 and '95. What did you learn about the illicit handgun market from doing that study?

Wachtel: We learned that the illicit handgun market is extremely diverse. Some of the interesting things that we learned are that people do go into gun stores, buy a gun over the counter, and then go out and get picked up with that gun in a crime. It does happen. We also learned that transactions between friends and family members are fairly frequent and are a source of crime guns. One of the interesting things we learned is that was quite the underground illicit market place of street dealing in firearms in this area with unlicensed street dealers turning over large numbers of new 9mm and .380 caliber pistols. One of their favorite sources of supply is a corrupt federally firearms licensee who is able to obtain large numbers of these guns with relative ease for a licensed distributor..

Q: Most people in the country don't know what's available on the illicit market. What would you tell somebody from Indiana about the illicit gun market in southern California?

Wachtel: Well the illicit gun market in southern California is surprisingly large. There is a tremendous replacement need for street guns. 35 to 40,000 guns are recovered by law enforcement agencies in southern California every year. These are guns that are picked up on the street. About 18% of those guns have been used in violent crimes. The other guns are picked up from a variety of smaller offenses. Many of them literally from somebody's back pocket. Persons who tend to have guns taken away from them on the street, regardless of the circumstance, are often times the kind of person that would prefer not to have their name associated with a gun transaction. So they tend to turn to other sources of firearms. One source that people frequently turn to is just a friend or an associate. They may buy a gun that's available from their friend or associate or more frequently they may ask that person to go to a gun store and get them a firearm. And the reason for that is that the guns that are most favored are new unblemished guns 9mm, .380.

Crooks and bad guys -- they basically want the same kind of gun, guns that we have. You cannot depend on residential theft as being a source of supply for those kind of firearms. To some degree you may luck out if you're a thief you may hit a house and you may find a .380 or 9mm pistol. More likely you won't or more likely you'll [FIND] a gun that's perhaps, has gone through the mill. People on the street want new guns, so they'll turn to friends to go buy a gun for them. They'll turn to street gun dealers, people who make it their business to supply quantities of new pistols, no records, no questions asked. They may also turn to corrupt licensed dealers who obtain guns in quantity from distributors and if they chose to can sell those guns without keeping any records.

Q: Why are those guns that are just seized on somebody that weren't used in a crime significant in understanding the relationship between guns and crime?

Wachtel: Well, the difference between a gun just being picked up because someone's carrying it in their back pocket and being picked up from a homicide may just be two minutes. The fact that a gun is found on the street puts that gun at risk of misuse.

Q: What kind of profits are there in the illicit gun market?

Wachtel: When a gun is resold illicitly on the street the price of that gun, if it is a relatively inexpensive pistol, will usually [sell] 100% over what that gun would be purchased for at retail. Now [if] it goes through additional hands, the gun may become even more expensive. If guns are put on the street for example, by unlicensed street dealers, and they have obtained those guns from say a corrupt licensee, the end user may wind up paying perhaps 200% over retail for that firearm.

Q: There used to be a clear distinction between cheaply made low caliber guns and better made, more expensive higher caliber guns. Is that distinction still as clear as it once was?

Wachtel: Well, there's certainly a distinction to the cost of firearms. There are such things as inexpensive small caliber pistols that one can actually buy for $35 or $40 dollars. There are the somewhat more expensive larger caliber pistols that can be had for $125-$150. There the prices jump into the area of $350-$450 and up.

Q: What do you see happen now in the market of popular guns on the street?

Wachtel: Well the most popular gun in terms not only of its recovery but also in terms of its manufacture and its legal consumption is a 9mm pistol.

Q: And is that changed over time?

Wachtel: Yes. When I began my career many years ago the most popular gun was the .38 caliber revolver or the .25 caliber pistol. So, the lethality of the firearms that are commonly manufactured and recovered has increased many fold.

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