“Crime Guns” — D.C.’s MPD Under an ATF Cloud

Gun Rights

Some reckonings are a long time coming. The District of Columbia’s irrational hostility to all things gun-related and to legitimate, licensed retail gun dealers in particular, has reportedly culminated with the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) scrutinizing the D.C. police department under a program aimed at suspected “bad apple” gun dealers.

When the District’s one and only Federal Firearms Licensee (FFL) who processed gun transfers lost his lease in 2011, D.C.’s restrictive zoning laws forced him to temporarily close his business because he was unable to get approval for an alternative location. District law forbids firearm transfers between unlicensed individuals, which meant residents were left without a legal means of acquiring or transferring handguns. It was only after a lawsuit was filed that local politicians agreed to lease him space in the Metropolitan Police Department (MPD) headquarters, allowing the FFL to resume operations. Even so, the location was not zoning-compliant and required emergency legislation to sanction it.

In March 2020, the FFL “abruptly” shut down his business, and the MPD itself stepped in as the District’s FFL. Mayor Muriel Bowser justified the move as necessary to avoid more litigation, “so that we wouldn’t run into any constitutional issues or open ourselves up to meddling in our gun laws from outside groups… once there is a viable commercial alternative licensed to operate in D.C., MPD will no longer need to serve this role.”     

As one source pointed out, not only did the MPD-as-FFL continue to charge $125 per firearm for each transfer –“$100 more than the average cost in the USA to process a firearm transfer for an eligible citizen” – there were questions as to whether the MPD qualified for an FFL and whether the ATF “gave the MPD special treatment” in granting the license. There was also the conflict between the D.C. government, a federal enclave, acting as an FFL and keeping the mandatory records required by that role at its “business premises,” which premises also happened to be “a facility owned, managed, or controlled by the United States or any State or any political subdivision thereof,” contrary to the prohibition in 18 U.S.C. § 926(a)(3).    

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A report from NBC’s News4 I-Team now claims to have “federal documents proving a concerning number of guns the Metropolitan Police Department helped bring into the District ended up at crime scenes. So many guns recovered at crime scenes, in such a brief period, that the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives placed D.C. police into a program designed to give extra scrutiny to dealers with higher levels of so-called crime guns.”

The report alleges that the ATF issued the MPD a “Demand 2 Program” letter in May 2022. The Demand 2 Program requires FFLs with 25 or more firearm traces in a calendar year, with a short “time to crime” of three years or less, to submit an annual report of firearms transactions to the ATF, followed by quarterly reports of used firearms acquired by the FFL. The reporting requirement applies until the FFL is instructed to stop by the ATF. The letter, of course, concerns just the eight or so months that the MPD acted as the District’s exclusive FFL, when it limited itself to processing transfers, including conducting background checks and enforcing the District’s gun registration and other requirements.

Based on the NBC report, “at least 25 of the guns MPD helped sell to D.C. residents in 2020 and 2021 were recovered at crime scenes in 2021 alone,” and that “[f]or the dozens of guns recovered at crime scenes that D.C. police helped sell, the time-to-crime was at most 20 months – less than two years.”

The initial reporting period under the Demand 2 Program is as identified in the ATF letter or no less than the 12 months prior to the date of the letter; follow-up reporting periods are quarterly, going forward from the date of the ATF letter. The ATF’s stepped-up reporting requirements are likely meaningless in the case of the MPD, given that the department ceased its short-lived tenure as an FFL effective January 4, 2021.

Anti-gun politicians and their gun control allies have argued for years that high crime rates in gun control strongholds are fueled by so-called “bad apple” gun dealers and less stringent laws in adjacent jurisdictions. The Brady Campaign, for instance, claimed that Chicago’s strict gun control was undermined by neighboring states’ laws and certain suburban dealers that “simply flood the streets of Chicago with thousands of guns.” The Giffords Law Center asserts that Washington, D.C. “has some of the strongest” gun control in the nation and “[b]ecause of this, firearms purchased in DC are rarely used in crimes… nearly every gun recovered at a crime scene in DC was originally purchased in another state.” This statement conveniently overlooks D.C.’s rising crime rates and that guns could only be purchased elsewhere, given that the District lacks a single retail gun store.

The NBC report refers to a letter in a similar vein that Mayor Bowser wrote to Virginia lawmakers on January 8, 2020. It named Virginia (a Giffords B plus-rated state) as the main source of “crime guns” used in the District, and asked for measures to address gun trafficking through stronger licensing and increased inspections for gun dealers (“ATF data show that criminal or negligent gun dealers are responsible for ‘nearly half’ of the total number of trafficked firearms uncovered in ATF investigations”).

A few months later, on April 20, Bowser signed Mayor’s Order 2020-064, authorizing the MPD to obtain a federal firearms license on behalf of the District. Not only did the MPD allegedly advise the NBC news team that “it started dealing guns more than two weeks before Mayor Muriel Bowser’s order allowing them to do so,” but it facilitated bringing guns into D.C. that ended up being used in crimes. The NBC News4 I-Team reportedly contacted the Mayor’s office about the letter and MPD’s role as a gun dealer, and while the office “acknowledged the questions” it “never answered them.”

By now, having “facilitated the legal transfer” of approximately 8,000 firearms for an estimated revenue stream of over a million dollars, the MPD and the District’s political leaders face questions as to how these facilitated sales impacted public safety.

Ironically, given the mayor’s concerns over “open[ing] ourselves up to meddling in our gun laws from outside groups,” at least two of the outside groups asking questions are the gun control group Brady and the ATF. According to a Brady spokesperson quoted in the NBC report, “MPD is ultimately responsible for the public safety of the residents … Everything that they do should have an eye towards protecting the public safety. If Washington [MPD] is engaged in selling firearms to the public, they have an obligation to the residents of D.C. to make sure that they are doing so safely and responsibly.”

The greater irony, by far, is that many of D.C.’s politicians pushed a bill last year to crack down on “firearm industry members” (any entity “engaged in the manufacture, distribution, importation, marketing, wholesale, or retail sale of firearm-related products”). If passed, one of the responsibilities of regulated entities would be to prevent “the unlawful … use of a firearm-related product,” with the District’s Attorney General, private citizens and others being authorized to bring civil actions with respect to alleged violations. A specific section reads, “An intervening act by a third party, including, but not limited to, criminal misuse of a firearm-related product, shall not preclude a firearm industry member from liability under [this] title.” At the time, the bill’s sponsor described the bill as “a meaningful step towards measured responsibility for the ongoing trauma gun violence inflicts on District residents.”       

If nothing else, this latest development may persuade D.C. lawmakers to reconsider the flaw in blaming industries and institutions, rather than individual perpetrators, for crime and violence, especially as one of the institutions involved is the District itself.

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