In a private room at a used car lot in Woodbury, Steven Novick sold guns out of a duffel bag. He didn’t have a license, and he didn’t check the background of his customers.
Federal agents had warned him in the past to stop, but he kept selling firearms. One of the guns he sold showed up at the scene of a drive-by shooting in St. Paul, another at a drug arrest in White Bear Lake. Finally, in 2007, the feds shut him down. His punishment: probation.
That Novick was prosecuted at all makes him a rarity in Minnesota. Over the last decade, his crime was one of only eight domestic gun-trafficking cases in Minnesota that federal prosecutors pursued, according to court records examined by the Star Tribune.
Federal law enforcement officials say their limited presence in the state and significant constraints in federal law present serious obstacles to cracking down on illegal gun trafficking.
“We have one of the most sparsely staffed divisions in the United States and that’s simply a fact,” said Scott Sweetow, special agent in charge of the Minnesota field office of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF). Minnesota U.S. Attorney B. Todd Jones, whom President Obama has nominated to lead the ATF, said the agency has gone “a long time without the resources it needs to really be healthier.”
The ATF’s Minnesota office has among the fewest inspectors in the nation to watch over the state’s 2,600 licensed gun dealers — about one inspector for every 330 dealers —even though its records show that illegal trafficking among licensed dealers is a top source of weapons found in crimes. It has also struggled to stop the practice of “straw buying.” That’s when someone purchases weapons on behalf of a person banned from having them.
What’s more, most of what the ATF knows about illegal guns, including those used in crimes, can’t be shared with the public because of privacy laws created a decade ago by Congress.
Police in Minneapolis and St. Paul have confiscated nearly 8,000 firearms in the last six years, but say they cannot stop the illegal arms trade flourishing out of public view in the Twin Cities.
“There’s a lot of god dang guns out there. A lot of ’em,” said Hennepin County Sheriff Rich Stanek. “And they’re fairly easy to acquire.”
The flow of illegal guns surprises even offenders, like Tiron Beane, 27, who’s in prison for burglary and a domestic assault that involved a gun.
“If the police seize 50 guns, then you look up and there’s 100 more back on the streets,” Beane said in an interview. “You question in your head, where is this coming from?”
Few offenders are caught
It’s rare for federal prosecutors in Minnesota to pursue a domestic gun trafficking case. A review of federal court files by the Star Tribune found less than one case per year for the past decade. Most of those cases were straw purchasers, people with clean records who bought guns for others who were prohibited. Three of those straw purchasing cases dealt with two guns each, a tiny fraction of the thousands of guns seized by Twin Cities law enforcement over the same time frame.
The penalty for one of the largest cases identified by the ATF didn’t include jail time: In 2000, three men were indicted for dealing in firearms without a license. An ATF report said that the men had sold 1,100 new and secondhand firearms, many to youths at gun shows. They pleaded guilty to misdemeanors. The men were sentenced to a year’s probation, a $1,500 fine and 100 hours of community service.
In the aftermath of December’s massacre of schoolchildren at Sandy Hook Elementary in Newtown, Conn., many lawmakers in Washington and around the country have argued for stricter controls of the illegal gun pipeline. Bills moving through Congress and the Legislature would stiffen the punishment for straw buyers.
Novick, the used car salesman, was caught when ATF agents came across his name in 2006 while doing a routine investigation of two licensed gun dealers, according to court records. They knew his name because in 2002, he had purchased 31 guns. An ATF agent sent him a letter telling him that federal law requires anyone dealing guns for a profit to get a federal firearms license. Novick stopped buying for several months, but then continued, purchasing another 67 guns before he was contacted by ATF agents again in early 2007, court records show.
After Novick told investigators he sold the weapons as a hobby, he was indicted on one count of unlicensed dealing in firearms and multiple counts of making false statements to federally licensed firearms dealers.
His defense hinged on the federal law’s definition of an arms dealer. Federal law allows private citizens to sell their personal guns without conducting background checks, but there’s no stated limit to the number of guns that person may sell before they’re considered an arms dealer.