CHARLOTTE, N.C. — What happened to Michael Beas illustrates how current gun laws worked well – or how flawed they really are.
For six months last year, Beas bought dozens of assault weapons and sold them without a license at gun shows in Georgia and the Carolinas, court records show. He sold parts for 12 .50-caliber weapons in a hotel parking lot off Interstate 85 in Charlotte. He frequently traveled to Bolivia, a nation with a history of gun trafficking.
But authorities captured Beas, 33, only after employees at a Charlotte gun store grew suspicious of his large AK-47 purchases and voluntarily tipped off federal agents.
“There’s really nothing wrong with buying a lot of guns,” said Carolina Sporting Arms salesman Phil Reynolds. “We just thought it was very strange to have that many guns of that type.”
Beas has agreed to plead guilty to dealing firearms without a license, a crime punishable by up to five years in prison. He is scheduled to enter his plea on Wednesday in federal court in Charlotte.
It’s an unusual case in Charlotte and the Western District of North Carolina. U.S. Attorney Anne Tompkins said her office has prosecuted only three other gun trafficking cases in the past five years.
Tompkins says agents are hampered by the lack of a system to track multiple assault weapons purchases.
Even today, authorities don’t know how many guns Beas bought and sold, or who he sold them to.
Those questions are part of the debate that has followed last month’s Newtown, Conn., school massacre. A gunman with a semiautomatic rifle and high-capacity magazines killed 20 children and six adults.
President Barack Obama has unveiled sweeping new gun proposals and Sen. Dianne Feinstein, a California Democrat, on Thursday introduced a bill that would ban many types of assault weapons and high-capacity ammunition magazines.
Federal prosecutors and employees of the store that flagged Beas disagree starkly on what this case reveals about the quality of gun laws.
Carolina Sporting Arms store manager Don Ingram, who helped lead authorities to Beas, opposes tougher gun laws. To Ingram, those changes are unnecessary and an intrusion on gun ownership rights.
“You’re treading on Constitutional rights,” Ingram said. “Upon the Second Amendment rests the First, then there goes everything else we stand for.”
Federal prosecutors endorse proposals for an assault weapon ban and universal background checks, including for private sales.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Dana Washington suggested in a court hearing early this month that authorities, while grateful for the gun store’s help, were limited in their investigation by the lack of a central registry of long gun purchases that would have quickly alerted agents about Beas’ activities.
“We have decided as a country we don’t want the government to know things like that,” Washington told a federal magistrate judge during Beas’ court hearing.
Beas is accused of lying about his address and admitted his activities were to engage in the business of dealing firearms.
He remains jailed without bond as he awaits this week’s court appearance.
Washington argued successfully against his release, citing concern over his ties to Bolivia. Beas has denied exporting arms to Bolivia, according to court records.
But Washington described as “troublesome” Beas’ dozen trips there since 2008.
Washington also expressed concern that authorities don’t know with certainty where Beas lives, which represents a flight risk. He has connections to Spartanburg and Greer in South Carolina, and to Miami.
Authorities contend Beas flew to the Carolinas from Miami and bought guns from various gun shops from June to November. They said they don’t know why he chose this area.
Beas’ attorney gave a different account. Tony Scheer said Beas worked and lived in Greer until last year, when he had marital trouble and his wife, a native of Bolivia, left for that country. Beas, Scheer said, traveled there to save his marriage and sold guns to make money.
“He went from zero to 60 in stupidity,” Scheer said.
U.S. Magistrate Judge David Keesler, hearing both sides, commented on the intense national debate over guns that surged after the Connecticut school tragedy.
“We’re in a very hot environment right now in terms of a national conversation on firearms,” Keesler said. “I just want to put that out there.”
Critics: System broken
Prosecutors said they caught Beas only after Carolina Sporting Arms alerted them.
And that, they argue, is the problem: Current gun laws have shortcomings if authorities must rely on tipsters to identify suspicious activity.
Federally licensed firearms dealers are required to perform background checks on buyers, but Beas had a clean record.
Court records did not indicate whether other gun stores Beas used alerted authorities to his purchases.
U.S. Attorney Tompkins told the Observer that one focus for her office is to prosecute people who illegally have firearms, such as convicted felons. Her prosecutors handle about 130 such cases a year.
But prosecuting gun traffickers is rare.
Those cases are difficult to prosecute because there is no limit on how many assault weapons someone can legally buy and no requirement to report those purchases to the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives. The agency is alerted only to buyers of multiple handguns.
“We don’t see these types of cases very often because there is no requirement for firearms dealers to track or report multiple sales of long guns, including assault weapons,” Tompkins said.
The only way federal agents can monitor sales of assault weapons is to go from store to store and physically look through paper records.
Agents also monitor gun shows for illegal activity, but it is difficult to tell the difference between a legal private seller and someone who is exploiting that as an illegal dealer who regularly buys and sells as a business. Private sellers are not licensed and do not have to conduct background checks on buyers or keep paperwork on gun sales.
Store: System works
Ingram, the gun store manager, argues that the Beas case does not prove that the current system of background checks and laws is broken.
The process, he says, functioned exactly as it should.
“The system worked for what it is designed to do,” Ingram said. “It identifies what you’ve done in your past. (Beas) had never committed a crime. There’s no predictor of future behavior.”
As required of all federally licensed firearms dealers, Ingram said he keeps paper records of his sales that show a buyer has passed a federal background check and indicate what guns were bought. Those records can be examined in person by federal agents at any time.
By posing as a private seller, Beas sold his weapons without background checks, which are meant to block buyers with mental illnesses, histories of domestic violence and felony convictions.
Carolina Sporting Arms employee Phil Reynolds said Beas’ case illustrates how workers constantly look for people trying to skirt the law by illegally buying weapons.
“There’s more to this business than making a profit,” Reynolds said.
In addition to banning 157 types of semi-automatic weapons, Sen. Feinstein’s gun bill proposes universal background checks for all sales of existing assault weapons.
Some gun rights advocates fear that measure will lead to a registry, and immediately denounced her plan. A registry is considered by some to be a step toward making it possible for the government to one day take guns away from citizens.
Jon Lowy of the Brady Center to Prevent Gun Violence said that fear shows how “extreme” the gun industry is by saying law enforcement “should not even be given information that someone is buying 20, 30, 40 AK 47s.”
None of the proposals by Obama or Feinstein include a way to track multiple assault weapons sales. To Tompkins, not having that information hurts her ability to enforce the law.
“There is no system,” Tompkins said. “In America, we love our individual freedoms. But I think people will be surprised to know that there is no mechanism for law enforcement to track the sale of assault weapons. Law enforcement doesn’t know who is buying numerous military style assault weapons.”