License to Kill: How the GOP Helped John Allen Muhammad Get a Sniper Rifle

Article excerpt

BULL'S EYE SHOOTER SUPPLY IS A warehouse-sized gull store near the waterfront in Tacoma, Wash. Boasting the Puget Sound's largest selection of firearms and ammunition, the store is a mecca for area sportsmen, who come to browse the latest hunting rifles or practice their marksmanship at the store's 12-lane shooting range. An outside Wall of the store bears a hand-painted mural depicting lions, elephants, cheetahs, and water buffaloes. Some of the store's firearms, however, have felled more than big game.

One such gun was a .223-caliber semiautomatic Bushmaster XM15 rifle, which Bull's Eye received from the manufacturer on July 2 of last year. On Sept. 21, a bullet from that gun blew through the back of a liquor store manager in Montgomery, Ala. (she died in the emergency room soon after). Two days later, another bullet burrowed through the head of a beauty store manager in Baton Rouge, La., who died instantly. Between Oct. 2-3, bullets from the gun ripped through the bodies of Six people in Montgomery County, Md., killing all of them. Over the next three weeks, the gun claimed seven more victims--including a bus driver, a female FBI analyst, and a 13-year-old schoolboy--killing four of them. Finally, on Oct. 24, law enforcement authorities found the Bushmaster in the back seat of a blue CheW Caprice occupied by John Allen Muhammad and John Lee Malvo.

Exactly how the gun got into the men's hands remains something of a mystery. Muhammad was banned by federal law from purchasing any gun because of a restraining order obtained by his ex-wife; his ineligibility would have Shown up during the Brady background Check that gun stores are required to run oh potential buyers. Malvo was ineligible because he was a juvenile and an illegal immigrant. Bull's Eye has no record of selling the weapon, much less conducting a background check on Muhammad or Malvo for it. Bull's Eye employees have reported seeing Malvo at the store this summer, and later noticed the Bushmaster was not in its display case. But the store did not file the federally required theft report. When the store's owner, Brian Borgelt, was questioned by agents of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms (ATF), the federal agency charged with enforcing the nation's gun laws, he claimed not to have known the gun was missing until authorities traced it back to his store. Two weeks after the Sniper suspects' arrests, he filed the theft report with the police and ATF.

This wasn't the first time that Bull's Eye was caught unable to account for deadly firearms that had passed through its doors. ATF inspectors, armed with data showing that weapons used in crimes had originated from Borgelt's store, audited it three times between 1998 and 2001, and found record-keeping irregularities each time. An audit in 2000 revealed that Borgelt could not account, through sales records, for 160 guns. Being unable to account for the whereabouts of even one-fifth that many weapons would be alarming, according to former ATF agents, even for a store the size of Bull's Eye. Moreover, Borgelt hadn't filed personal income tax returns since 1995 and hadn't filed some business tax forms since 1994--this despite $1.5 million in store bank deposits.

Yet despite all the warning signs, ATF didn't shut the store down. It didn't suspend Bull's Eye's license, or put it on probation. It didn't even administer a fine--not one $5 ticket to let the store know that the bureau meant business. Two years later, a $1,600 sniper rifle seems to have disappeared from the store like a pack of M&Ms from a convenience mart, surfacing 3,000 miles away in one of the biggest killing sprees in American history--oh, and one more thing: Bull's Eye is still open for business.

In the wake of September 11, the CIA, FBI, and INS have all been picked apart for failing to act on information that might have prevented the terrorist attacks. So far, there has been no similar call for investigating ATF, even though experts worry that Muhammad--a member of the Nation of Islam who reportedly considered America a terrorist state--may inspire al Qaeda or other terrorist groups to conduct similar attacks with easily obtained sniper rifles. …