Dealing In Death 

One in eight guns sold at Trader Sports eventually ends up with the police. The feds have been trying to shut the San Leandro store for decades, but it and its owner may dodge the bullet once again.

The only sign in late May that Trader Sports was embroiled in a fierce fight with the feds was the flurry of bright orange "Price Reduced for Quick Sale" tags affixed to everything with a trigger. Otherwise, it was business as usual: The aisles were crammed with dudely types trolling for fishing tackle and firepower. Neat rows of chrome and steel weaponry gleamed under the countertop glass. Prominently displayed on the sales counter were stacks of a slim volume titled How to Own a Gun and Stay Out of Jail.

It's a lesson too few of the store's customers took to heart.

According to the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms, the San Leandro sporting goods store is the nation's second-biggest source of crime guns — that is, weapons either acquired or used illegally. Last year, law enforcement agencies traced 447 crime guns to Trader Sports. There were 481 traces in 2004 and 496 in 2003. That's more than one a day.

Gun-control advocates have long considered Trader Sports a rogue dealer, so they were rooting for the ATF this summer when it finally yanked the firearms license of owner Anthony Cucchiara after years of investigations and legal proceedings. The agency cited a litany of record-keeping violations — most spectacularly, that more than 1,700 guns claimed by the shop were missing from the store's inventory. The ATF also recorded 431 irregularities involving the forms customers must fill out before purchasing a firearm, which are meant to screen out prohibited buyers such as minors, felons, drug users, and the mentally ill, and to prevent so-called "straw sales," in which a person legally eligible to buy a gun fills out the paperwork for someone who isn't. After concluding that Trader Sports was willfully violating federal law, the ATF revoked Cucchiara's license. By June 1, all of the orange-stickered guns had to be gone — and gone they were.

But the shootout isn't likely to end there.

Trader Sports is still open, and Cucchiara is suing to restore his license to sell firearms. It's not his first battle with the ATF. The agency tried to shut him down over similar violations in the 1970s, but he won that round. Cucchiara declined to comment for this story, but he and his attorney contend in court papers that the store keeps proper records but is being harassed by improper inspections, and that its high number of crime-gun traces stem not from wrongdoing but its high overall sales volume.

True, Trader Sports sells a lot of guns, and even the ATF will agree that high sales volume can mean a high number of gun traces. True, weapons legally sold to eligible purchasers are sometimes later used in crimes — after all, store clerks are not mindreaders who can predict customers' intentions. And true, legally acquired guns can change hands after leaving a shop, either through resale or theft.

But it's also true that government regulations designed to limit gun sales to the law-abiding seem to work pretty well for most stores. There are nearly 55,000 federally licensed firearms dealers in the United States, and during the last year for which the ATF released such data, 86 percent of them had no crime guns traced to them. By contrast, during the last three years, one out of every eight guns sold by Trader Sports was traced.

They don't travel far. Most turn up in Oakland, Richmond, and San Francisco. But if you want to know how they've been used, you'll probably never find out. Thanks the gun industry and its friends in the Bush administration, in 2004 it became illegal for the ATF to publicly release gun-trace data. ATF employees are barred from even talking about the fact that they can no longer release gun-trace data. A bill before Congress this year would further limit disclosure — even to law enforcement in some cases.

The firearms industry has everything to gain by blurring the public's view of who makes, distributes, and sells the weapons that are most frequently linked to crime: it makes it harder for victims' families to file civil suits, harder for advocates to quantify the need for new gun control and manufacture laws, and harder for residents to know which stores are arming their local criminal element.

After all, a gun's journey from sales counter to police evidence room is rarely a delightful story. In each of the following three cases, a person who shouldn't have been able to buy a gun had someone else buy one for him at Trader Sports. Each then soon used that weapon to kill someone. Each was convicted of murder. Each case is documented enough that the story can be told without aid from the now-muzzled ATF.

Store attorney Malcolm Segal declined an opportunity to review and comment on each of these cases, offering only a general statement on his client's history of frequent crime-gun traces: "In none of those cases has anyone shown that the firearm was improperly sold by Trader Sports or that Trader Sports believed that the person who was acquiring it was other than the person who could do so under the law."

Perhaps he's never heard of Larry Ellingsen.

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