The Story of a Gun

After 60,000 deaths from firearms use over the past two years, America is in a gun crisis. Yet gun laws remain weak, gunmakers continue to promote killing power, and gun dealers accept no responsibility for the criminal use of what they sell

I met Mike Dick—his full name is J. Michael Dick—on a hot morning in June at Guns Unlimited in Carrollton, on the north side of Route 17. The store is one of seven in a tiny mini-mall fronted with a white-gravel parking lot that blazed in the morning sun.

Mike and his father, James S. Dick, hold two of the nation's 245,000 federal firearms-dealer licenses—two of the 7,000 licenses issued to residents of Virginia, where gun controls are virtually nonexistent.

Dick was late, but two of his clerks arrived and invited me inside to wait. The shop, no larger than a suburban living room, was a fortress. The Dicks had embedded steel "tank traps" in the sidewalk out front, to prevent a recurrence of what has become a fairly routine kind of burglary at the gun stores of America: crashing through the front display window with a truck. The Dicks installed the tank traps a few years ago, after a thief backed a dump truck into the store. Now an alarm system guards the place at night. The front door has been reinforced with steel. Steel herringbone grates cover the inside surfaces of the two large plate-glass windows. A big Pepsi machine stands against the grate just inside the door as a barrier to anyone hoping to cut through the glass to reach the door locks. The day I was there, the two clerks wore large-bore handguns strapped to their hips, one a revolver, the other a semi-automatic pistol. One clerk, dressed in black and wearing tinted glasses, told me that he and his partner were careful to stand at different points in the shop so that no one could get the drop on them simultaneously. He untacked a brief news clipping from the bulletin board behind him and proudly handed it to me. The item reported how just that week a Portsmouth gun-shop owner had shot and killed a would-be robber. No charges were filed.

Mike Dick arrived, wearing jeans and a T-shirt. He is a young man whose prior career was in the hospitality (hotel and restaurant) industry. He joined Guns Unlimited to help his father salvage the business, which in the three years since the shooting had suffered badly—not from public condemnation but from the recession and the sudden decampment of so many military men from the Hampton Roads area during the Gulf War. The domestic gun industry as a whole has likewise experienced declining sales over the past few years, and last March one of the country's highest profile arms makers, Colt's Manufacturing, filed for protection from creditors under Chapter 11. At the time of the shooting, however, the industry was enjoying a robust surge in sales, and Guns Unlimited was thriving. As of 1990 James Dick owned three Guns Unlimited stores. By the time I met his son, however, Guns Unlimited had also been placed in Chapter 11; the Carrollton store was the only one operating.

At its peak the company advertised aggressively on television and with huge billboards featuring a giant handgun and proclaiming, "NO PERMITS," a reference to the fact that in Isle of Wight County, as in most of the rest of Virginia, you don't need a permit to buy a handgun. Regulations are much stiffer in individual cities in the Hampton Roads area, however: Portsmouth, for example, requires that buyers first get a city police permit. Guns Unlimited used the placement of its three stores to defeat these laws. In a deposition the aforementioned Christopher Hartwig, a clerk at the company until May of 1991, said that if a customer at the Portsmouth store needed a gun right away, a clerk would drive the gun to the Carrollton store and meet the buyer there. "Most people don't want to wait," he explained. "It would be like waiting two weeks to buy a nice car. You would want it today if you got the money. So they'd send the gun, you know, to the other store and then all the paperwork, everything, would be done right there."

This bit of retail sleight of hand was legal.

"Guns Unlimited is very well respected," Mike Dick assured me over coffee in the convenience store at the end of the mini-mall. He told me he'd been invited to join the state police firearms advisory board, and had assisted the ATF in numerous investigations, often calling the regional office after—or even during—suspicious transactions.

"In fact," he told me, "I would venture to say if you talked to the local office of ATF, you would find that no one in this region assists them, whenever possible, as much as we do."

At the same time, Guns Unlimited sold an especially lethal weapon to an adolescent—a weapon, moreover, that its own staff said served no useful purpose. At one point in the deposition process that preceded the civil trial of Guns Unlimited, Randy Singer, the plaintiff's attorney, asked Hartwig what he thought of the Cobray M-l1/9. "It's good for nothing," Hartwig said.

Hartwig added that one kind of customer did seem drawn to the weapon. "Your blacks are real impressed with them. We usually joke around about it because that's the first thing they want to look at when they come in, or we get phone calls, 'Do you have an Uzi, do you have an M-11,' because they see it on TV. They feel pretty powerful having one of those."

Nicholas, who is black, was adamant about going to Guns Unlimited. Traffickers, gang members, and other killers have likewise chosen Guns Unlimited, a fact that has given the dealership a certain notoriety in Virginia's Tidewater region—unjustly, perhaps, but also unavoidably, given the peculiar nature of firearms retailing.

In two cases in the 1990s gun traffickers recruited straw-man buyers to acquire large numbers of guns. In both cases, according to documents in Norfolk federal court, the traffickers specifically directed their recruits to Guns Unlimited; in both cases Guns Unlimited did indeed act as an exemplary corporate citizen.

In one case, Amir Ali Faraz, a twenty-two-year-old student, asked a friend of his, Matthew Jones, about buying "a couple of firearms"; Faraz couldn't buy the guns on his own, he knew, because his permanent residence was in Pennsylvania and he had only a Pennsylvania driver's license. Jones got him a Virginia license belonging to a man of roughly similar appearance who had lost it earlier in the year. Jones took Faraz to Guns Unlimited, where Faraz bought six high-caliber handguns—four for himself and one each for Jones and a friend of Jones's who had accompanied them to the store. A week later Faraz sold three of his to Jones for $1,200. "Matthew told me he could sell these firearms for a 'big profit' in the Tidewater area to people who would take them up North and make even a bigger profit from them," Faraz said in a written statement to the ATF.

In the gun trade buying more than one handgun at a time automatically raises a warning flag; in fact, the ATF requires dealers to mail in a multiple-purchase form any time a customer buys two or more handguns within a period of five working days. Nonetheless, in the absence of specific local regulations, anyone can walk into a gun store and buy a hundred handguns. The dealer is under no obligation to telephone the ATF, or even to inquire why anyone would want so many guns. All the dealer must do is mail the form by the close of business on the day of the purchase. The buyer, meanwhile, is free to scoop up his hundred handguns and start selling.

The ATF will investigate high-volume purchases, provided it learns of them. If a purchase takes place on a Saturday night, however, the ATF won't see the form for several days. Meanwhile, the guns will begin their rapid migration through the illicit-arms network. Guns trafficked from Norfolk, Virginia, for example, typically wind up in the hands of crooks in Washington, Philadelphia, and New York, half a day's drive up Interstate 95—nicknamed the "Iron Road" for all the illicit weapons that make the trip. That the notification procedure takes place by mail in an age when virtually every ordinary consumer transaction involves some immediate form of computer verification is but one of the peculiar ironies that characterize arms commerce in America.

Mike Dick managed the first sale to Faraz, and was immediately suspicious, enough so that he telephoned the Norfolk office of the ATF to alert them to Faraz's purchases. (He also mailed a multiple-purchase form.) Over the next two weeks Faraz returned three times and bought twenty-nine more guns, selling twenty-five to Jones, according to court documents. On the last of these shopping trips Faraz placed an order for thirteen more handguns, all high-quality Glock pistols. Dick telephoned the ATF while Faraz was still in the store, and helped choreograph an undercover operation against Faraz. Dick allowed the ATF to choose the day on which Guns Unlimited would notify Faraz that the guns he had ordered were ready for pickup.

Agents arrested Faraz and, after allowing him to deliver ten guns to Jones, arrested Jones as well. Both men were convicted of violating federal firearms laws.

"I don't just send the forms in and hope it takes six months for ATF to get around to them," Dick told me. "If there is something that's obviously a problem—and this obviously was—my opinion is the best way to correct the problem from society's standpoint is to get these people off the street. If I just refuse to sell them weapons, nothing's going to happen. They're just going to go to someone less ethical than myself. And he may send the multiple-purchase form in; he may not send it in. Not all dealers are good."

Society did not make out in this deal quite as well as Guns Unlimited did. The store booked at least $15,000 in sales. Yet twenty-nine of the forty eight high-caliber handguns that Faraz bought wound up in Matthew Jones's hands and presumably in the gun-trafficking network. (Some of the guns were kept by Jones, Faraz, and Faraz's friends.)

In the second trafficking case a local college student, Dean Archer, was recruited to buy guns by a convicted felon. He made his first purchase on December 1, 1990, when he bought four handguns from Guns Unlimited- four pistols made by Davis Industries, a favorite of traffickers who buy them cheaply in Virginia and other jurisdictions with lax controls and then sell them at a steep markup to inner-city buyers.

No one at Guns Unlimited seemed particularly concerned about the purchase. No one felt moved to call the ATF. Indeed, the store sold Archer the guns on the strength of a rent receipt for a Virginia apartment and his driver's license—a NEW YORK driver's license.

When the ATF learned of Archer's purchase—three days later—the agency was instantly suspicious and launched a preliminary investigation. A few days after the first purchase Archer reappeared at Guns Unlimited, this time accompanied by a young woman, Lisa Yvonne Scott. Scott bought seven cheap Davis handguns. Again, the ATF learned of the sale only through a multiple-purchase form mailed by Guns Unlimited. Again, the form arrived three days after the purchase—more than enough time for those guns to make their way from hand to hand, state to state. And again, the ATF immediately assumed that something illicit had occurred.

The ATF called Guns Unlimited to get more details and learned that Scott had been accompanied by an unidentified male later identified as Dean Archer. By this point, however, eleven of the country's favorite crime guns were on the street.

A few days later Scott appeared again and bought thirteen Davis pistols. This time Mike Dick telephoned the ATF. Nonetheless, Archer and Scott left the store with their new purchases. The total of cheap and deadly Davis pistols bought by the pair had risen to twenty-four. Four days later Scott and Archer made yet another buying trip, but at last the ATF was waiting. The two were arrested and convicted.

Clearly the store had been helpful to the ATF. But why would Guns Unlimited even consider selling a handgun to a buyer presenting an out-of state license for identification?

Dick explained that the clerk accepted the license as identification only because it had a photograph of Archer and established the link between his face and his name. A Norfolk rent receipt and an ID card from a local college established that he lived in Virginia. The fact that he was enrolled in college explained why he would have a New York license and be renting an apartment in Virginia.

Federal law grants a licensed gun dealer broad discretion to refuse to sell to anyone; a brochure mailed to licensees states in bold print, "Know Your Customer." Wouldn't prudence have dictated that Guns Unlimited simply refuse to sell weapons when the nature of the sale provides clear grounds for suspicion—clear enough, certainly, for the ATF?

"They tell me I have the discretion to do that," Dick said. "But in practical terms, that doesn't give me the right to infringe on anyone's civil rights."

I asked him how he felt knowing that Nicholas Elliot and various gun traffickers had specifically sought out Guns Unlimited as the place to acquire their guns.

"Well, actually, good," he said. "I don't know how to describe it without sounding...bad. Because I come out of hospitality, customer service is my number-one concern. Period. Beyond all others. The ethnicity of an individual, in my restaurants, my hotel rooms, my store, is absolutely unimportant. I don't care what part of town you live in, what race you're of, you're going to be treated like a human being."

"But I'm not talking about race," I said. "All I—"

Dick cut me off. "But that's the point," he said. "I have a stronger black clientele than any store in Tidewater and I would bet any store in the state, and maybe any store in the Southeast, because—and word gets around—I treat people like human beings, and they can't always get that elsewhere."

On March 29, 1991, Jean-Claude Pierre Hill, a young Virginia doctor with a history of mental-health problems, bought two Colt .45 pistols from Mike Dick at Guns Unlimited. Dick remembers the case well. "In that particular situation there was something wrong about him," he told me. "I called ATF while he was in the store; I said, I can't put my finger on it but there's just something not right here." Despite his unease, however, he failed to notice that Hill never signed his Form 4473—an absolute requirement of federal firearms law. Dick would later testify that he "somehow missed" that omission.

The ATF ran a background check on Hill through the National Crime Information Center, but found nothing. No one at the agency's Norfolk office knew of Hill or had any reason to worry about him. Dick sold him the guns.

I asked Dick why, given his concerns, he made the sale. "Couldn't you have just said, 'You worry me; I'm not going to sell you these weapons'?"

"You're absolutely right: that's what I could have said. But do I trample on somebody's individual rights simply because I feel bad and the ATF says I have the discretion to do it?"

A week after Hill bought the guns, he fired into a crowded street in Philadelphia, killing one man and wounding two. (He was found guilty of first-degree murder early last year and sentenced to life imprisonment.)

"How did you feel when you heard about this?" I asked. "That this guy had taken these guns you sold him, even though you had doubts, and killed somebody—the ultimate deprivation of somebody's rights? Did it cause you any sleepless nights?"

"No. I did everything I possibly could have, short of compromising something I feel very strongly about. And that is, I'm not going to decide if you are a worthwhile person or not. He gave me red flags. I checked him out. Had there been anything, had ATF found mental instability in his background, had ATF said he was [dishonorably] discharged, I could have gone to him and said, 'Jean-Claude, I'm not going to sell you these guns.' But I'm not going to decide somebody's character based on my impressions of him—I'm just not gonna do it. It's not necessarily tied to any Second Amendment right to keep and bear arms—it's not tied to my right as a retailer not to do business with somebody. I just would not want to put myself in the position of deciding someone else's character arbitrarily based on my own opinion. Empowering people to do that is dangerous."

In most jurisdictions in America, however, there is little else to keep guns out of the wrong hands. Form 4473, far from helping, has become a conduit for the evasion of responsibility. You'd have to be naive indeed to answer yes to any of the eight questions about your criminal background and mental health. And in most jurisdictions no formal channel exists to check the truth of your answers. (In 1989 Virginia changed its gun laws, establishing an "instant-check" system that requires dealers to run a quick criminal check on every purchaser. But the system tells nothing about whether a buyer has been committed to a mental institution.) One can argue that it is unfair to ask America's gun dealers—businessmen, after all—to go beyond what the law requires of them. Nevertheless, dealers and their official lobbyists—the NRA in particular—played a large role in shaping existing firearms regulations and in making Congress squeamish about establishing anything even faintly resembling a centralized, automated registry of all the nation's gun owners.

Blame aside, Form 4473 is flimsy protection indeed for an enterprise under assault from all quarters. Mike Dick must defend against trucks. He must be vigilant for traffickers, killers, and other felons seeking to buy his wares. He wears a handgun to work 40 percent of the time but concedes that it provides only limited protection from robbers.

So why, I asked, did he stay in the business?

"I come out of the hospitality industry—hospitality is my first love. I came here out of necessity to help my father. It has become a challenge to me, taking a declining business under constant siege by various aspects of society—it is a monumental challenge. My goal is to become profitable enough that at some point we can sell and I can go back to what I do best, and that is run hotels."

I asked Raymond Rowley, the ATF special agent who investigated Nicholas Elliot's acquisition of his gun, how he would describe the ATF's relationship with Guns Unlimited.

"I would say it's a good relationship," Rowley said. "We try to deal with all these firearms dealers as fairly as we can. They are selling a legal commodity. Obviously guns can be used in crimes. We try to deal with them fairly."

Leonard Supenski was a bit less circumspect. Of James Dick he said, "That guy is a pariah. He ought to be turned out of that industry. But ATF didn't do anything. ATF should have nailed him to the cross."

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