Guns R Us

You live in Rio de Janeiro and you've got a little problem with an overzealous police force. Your difficulties could be solved with a few hundred assault rifles and a couple of tons of ammo. Welcome to Miami!

Garisto portrays the Miami purchases as "legal sales," and in a certain sense he's correct. As long as gun purchasers can show to a federally licensed dealer that they are Florida residents and they have not been convicted of a felony, committed to a mental institution, or dishonorably discharged from the armed forces, they can generally procure as many weapons as they like. (To buy shotguns or rifles, purchasers must be at least eighteen years old. To buy a handgun, they must be at least twenty-one.) It is almost always illegal, however, for someone to purchase firearms on behalf of another person; Brazilian arms smugglers commonly use this method of hiring a "straw purchaser."

Bruce Snyder, the ATF spokesman, admits that the system has long been abused by foreigners seeking high-quality, low-cost weapons. In South America, Snyder says, handguns will sell for three to six times their U.S. sticker price. "A guy will come here from Jamaica, Brazil, Colombia, Ecuador, Haiti, and run around to the local gun shops buying up guns. The normal trafficking schemes that we run into would be that a person comes in with a fake ID, a fake driver's license, or he has family and friends who he'll utilize as straw purchasers."

Although strictly illegal, these types of sales are maddeningly difficult to detect. Not surprisingly, most employees of the gun shops scattered along Bird Road insist such incidents don't occur at all. "If someone comes here and buys some guns that I suspect will be illegally exported, I void the transaction immediately," asserts the manager of a well-known Miami gun store who asked not to be identified.

At National Gun, a sizable store on Bird Road a mile or so west of the Palmetto, purchasers of rifles and shotguns are required to present proof of age and Florida residency. The customer's identity is then checked with the Florida Department of Law Enforcement to determine if he or she has a criminal history. (These background checks often are completed in minutes. In 1994 the agency conducted nearly 50,000 of them.) In addition, the customer must fill out a federal form, known as ATF 4473, recording name, address, type of weapon purchased, serial number, manufacturer, and stating, among other things, whether he or she is a fugitive from justice, a drug user, an illegal alien, or subject to a restraining order, any one of which would prohibit the transaction. Lying on the form is a felony. However, the form remains on file with the gun shop and the information given is rarely verified by an independent agency. The customer can then pay for his purchase and leave. "You can buy one hundred guns if you have the money," says Snyder.

If the weapons are handguns, however, there are two additional checks. Purchasers are required by state and federal law to wait for a three-day cooling-off period before they can pick up their weapons. Gun-store employees are also required to mail a record of any multiple-handgun purchase (more than one gun) to federal and state authorities.

Foreigners may purchase firearms only if they are legal residents or if they can obtain from their country's embassy or consulate a letter from the chief diplomatic officer stating that they would be permitted to purchase such a gun in their own country. Luiz Benedini, consul general of Brazil in Miami, estimates that he signed 30 to 40 such letters per month until this summer, when Brazil tightened the law by requiring domestic approval first. However, Benedini would provide letters only for the purchases of guns that were legally sold in Brazil, sending Brazilians who wanted to buy the outlawed 9mm Glock pistols or AR-15 rifles into the black market or forcing them to use fake IDs or straw purchasers.

The gun-store manager who requested anonymity insists he can smell straw purchasers the minute they walk through his door. But customers of any sort are more rare these days, the manager claims. "Look, I only sold three pistols today," he says, holding up three yellow sales receipts. "They were to two Cubans and one Colombian. Business is terrible." (Indeed, Tamiami Gun Shop, from whom Luciano Maiello bought his personal weapon, shut its doors a few months ago after more than 40 years in business.)

The manager believes that the current slump in Latin American economies -- the devaluation of the Mexican peso and the banking crisis in Venezuela -- may be contributing to the decline in gun purchases. "Any time there are economic problems down there, it affects us up here," he says grumpily. "All businesses are hurting, not only the gun business."

If there is a fall-off in gun smuggling, however, U.S. Customs hasn't noticed it. Two weeks ago customs agents arrested three Haitians who were trying to smuggle 260 pistols and 14,900 rounds of ammunition in cargo crates delivered to Miami International Airport. The crates were labeled as containing tools and personal belongings. The weapons and ammunition had been purchased from a South Florida pawnshop for $27,750.

In July customs busted a Honduran national, Jose Ovidio Guzman-Vallecillo after he bought 34 handguns from undercover agents. Ovidio told the agents he had intended to smuggle them in a cargo container aboard a ship bound for Honduras with the help of a friendly Honduran customs official. He also claimed he had bought the weapons for resale to security companies in Honduras.

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