Shoot the Messenger?

The Brady Campaign puts a Philadelphia shop on its list of the 10 worst gun dealers in America.

By Steve Volk
Add Comment Add Comment | Comments: 0 | Posted Sep. 24, 2003

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By those numbers, Colosimo's initially looks like a solid link in a chain of black-market trafficking. But the ATF asks that people be cautious in drawing conclusions.

"If a gun dealer is a high-volume gun dealer," says Thomas Bowen of the ATF's Philadelphia branch, "they are statistically more likely to end up with guns traced to crime."

Dealers in urban areas, where crime rates are highest, are also more likely to face straw purchasers. Another recent ATF report found that more than 60 percent of guns used for crimes in Philadelphia were recovered 10 miles or less from their point of purchase. And Colosimo's, at 933 Spring Garden St., is certainly within 10 miles of some of North Philly's hottest crime spots.

Bowen, the ATF's group supervisor for firearms trafficking, also dismantles Ricker's testimony. "Yes, three or four gun traces a year could represent a trafficking problem," he says. "It also might not. What you have to remember is that truly corrupt dealers are rare. A corrupt dealer will sell to anybody. They do things off the books. But there are others where a high volume accounts for the number of gun traces, and Colosimo's is certainly a high-volume gun shop."

The ATF's national office responded to the Brady Campaign's list with a statement of its own, making largely the same argument as Bowen. "It is misleading to suggest that a gun dealer is corrupt because a large percentage of the guns sold in his store are subsequently used in a crime," it reads. "Many other factors--including high volume of sales, the type of inventory carried and whether the store is located in a high-crime area--contribute to the percentages cited ... "

Colosimo's enjoys a reputation for carrying high-quality, big-ticket handguns, whereas criminals tend to prefer inexpensive firearms, dubbed "Saturday night specials." The .380 used to murder Vaird, for instance, rates as a notoriously inexpensive little shooter manufactured by Lorcin, a company known for cheap handguns.

Colosimo's is also a high-volume dealer. Colosimo claimed in a 1993 court document that he grossed more than $1.3 million in gun sales and shooting range fees per year--a good number for a shooter shop. However, Tom Stankiewicz, assistant special agent in charge of ATF's Philadelphia field division, admits the Brady numbers made some impact.

"Colosimo's is a large-volume dealer with little competition in the area," he says. "Therefore, he is possibly the only place for them to go. But after that report we did look at his numbers again to determine if there was anything different than what we reviewed in the past. And we'll continue to do that in the future. On average, he has a normal time-to-crime rate. But I'm not going to comment beyond that."

That the ATF would seek to counter the Brady Campaign's findings is intriguing, mainly because the Brady "bad apple" numbers came from the ATF's own reports. The conclusions are drawn from previous statements made by agency officials, and its database of gun trace information was compiled by Joe Vince and Jerald Nunziato, both retired ATF agents.

In other words, while this debate over "bad apple" dealers includes the usual parade of pro- and anti-gun-control forces, it also seems to pit the ATF against itself.

During his 28 years at the ATF, Vince rose all the way to chief of the Firearms Division, where he created and managed the agency's Crime Gun Analysis branch before retiring in 1999.

Over the last dozen years, the ATF has made a huge effort to examine how guns came to be diverted from law-abiding types to criminals. To analyze these trafficking patterns, the ATF radically increased the number of gun traces it performs--from 37,000 in 1990 to roughly 200,000 today. If there's one man responsible for the huge increase in gun traces, it's probably Vince.

Using a gun's serial numbers, agents can theoretically trace a weapon discovered in a criminal investigation through the sales chain of manufacturer, distributor, gun dealer and initial purchaser.

The first Joe Blow who walks in, plunks down cash or plastic and walks out with a gun rarely uses it to commit a crime.

In fact, ATF trace data from 1999 found that 89 percent of crime guns changed hands at least once before police recovered them. Gun proponents often cite figures to argue most crime guns were stolen, but even anti-gun-control forces like the National Shooting Sports Foundation (NSSF) now admit straw purchases represent the most common source of trafficking investigations.

The NSSF and the feds even co-sponsor an educational program dubbed "Don't Lie for the Other Guy," targeting the nation's dealers with tips on how to spot and decline business from a suspected straw purchaser. But for Vince, who now works with his former ATF colleague Nunziato at a consulting firm called Crime Gun Solutions, admitting a problem exists is one thing. Taking responsibility is another.

"Look at it this way," he says. "If Toyota constantly got complaints about the same car dealership, they'd stop selling their cars through them tomorrow. Gun manufacturers have access to all this tracing information, internally, but they don't use it. Why not stop supplying guns to the 2 percent of gun dealers who represent the biggest part of the problem?"

Vince doesn't think setting up shop in a high-crime area should be any excuse for how many crime guns are later traced back to a particular dealer's door. "It's not an excuse," he says. "They need to look at their business practices."

Vince minimizes any disagreements between himself and the agency he long served. "When they say these numbers from the Brady Campaign don't tell the whole story," he says, "they're right. They don't. I can't speak specifically about Colosimo's and say precisely what's going on there, but I can say those numbers of gun traces are unacceptable. We're not saying anyone is a crook. We're saying you need to look at your business practices."

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