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.

To put limitations on the sales, some states require that all gun sales be processed through a licensed dealer, or limit the number of guns an unlicensed person can sell. That’s not the case in Minnesota.

Novick’s attorney, a former federal prosecutor, argued that Novick was a collector, not a dealer.

The court sentenced Novick to two years of probation.

“It’s the definition of dealer that makes it problematic,” said Assistant U.S. Attorney Ann Anaya, who handled the Novick case. “You get into the muddy area of ‘Are you making a living selling guns?’ ”

Novick declined to comment on his case.

Epidemic of straw purchasing

Cassidy Sam said he used to send his girlfriend to a Twin Cities gun shop to buy weapons. He was an 18-year-old felon at the time. His 23-year-old girlfriend told the gun shop clerk that she lived in a bad neighborhood with her daughter and needed a gun for protection. She used the same story on repeat visits, buying six guns in just a few months, Sam said.

“I think after the second time he knew what was going on. But they’re making money. They really don’t ask questions,” said Sam, now 20 and serving a state prison sentence in Rush City for gun possession.

It’s exactly the scenario described last summer by Bernard Zapor, then the head of Minnesota’s ATF office, in discussing an uptick in gun crimes in St. Paul. Despite Zapor’s warning, the U.S. attorney’s office hasn’t prosecuted a woman for straw buying in at least the past 10 years. Sam’s girlfriend was never caught.

Prosecutors say the burden of proof and the weak penalties make prosecution of straw buyers a low priority, despite their outsized role in supplying guns to criminals.

A 2010 study by the University of California-Davis found that 20 percent of gun dealers it surveyed agreed to sell a woman a handgun when she told them she was buying it for her boyfriend.

Authorities say most straw buyers pick up a few guns at a time, not dozens; the buyers typically aren’t part of a major trafficking organization.

“They’re very difficult to prove and frequently the purchaser, if it’s the girlfriend situation, will buy four or five,” said Assistant U.S. Attorney Carol Kayser, who works in Jones’ office. “She’s not buying 30, she’s not buying 50. And so the argument will be, ‘Oh they were stolen and I didn’t know it was stolen.’ ”

In a recent case, Kayser prosecuted a felon named Tavon Timberlake, who was arrested on June 3, 2010, and charged with unlawful possession of the .40-caliber pistol tucked in his waistband. He was a back seat passenger in a car driven by a woman who had purchased four or five firearms, not all at the same time.

She told investigators she needed the guns for personal protection but that she no longer had them because they had been stolen. She never reported them stolen, nor did she seem to have enough money to buy the expensive handguns she had chosen.

“I wouldn’t be able to prove the case against her,” Kayser said. “You would have to prove that at the time she bought the firearm, she lied on the form where she said ‘I am the ultimate purchaser of the firearm.’ ”

A spokesman for the Minneapolis city attorney’s office said that it hasn’t investigated straw buying cases. The Minneapolis Police Department directed the Star Tribune to the ATF when asked if it had investigated straw purchasers.

“We’ve been discouraged because it’s just a gross misdemeanor,” said Hennepin County Attorney Mike Freeman. “We don’t do gross misdemeanors. We do felonies.”

A Twin Cities gun dealer said he watches for straw buys and commonly turns people down. Rick Madden said he’s had numerous customers attempt to buy guns without paperwork, including one man who offered him double what he was asking for a rare Colt handgun as long as the buyer didn’t have to register.

“We are very strict when we sell firearms to people,” said Madden, who runs a business with his wife, Holly, selling guns at area gun shows. “If we suspect any type of straw buying, the first thing we do is refuse them and second thing we would do is contact the ATF.”

On April 18, 2009, the Maddens sold a gun to McHarding Degan Galimah. He would return for more guns, making five purchases over the course of a year. He passed a background check, but Holly Madden said she got suspicious soon after meeting him and contacted the ATF, which instructed her to continue selling.

Galimah bought at least 12 firearms from the Maddens, including several Hi-Point 9mm pistols, court records show. His plans eventually became clear when federal authorities caught him trafficking the guns to Liberia. A federal jury convicted him Feb. 14 of firearms smuggling. He faces a possible sentence of 10 years.

A dealer also helped turn in a straw buyer who sold locally. On Aug. 5, 2011, south Minneapolis gun shop owner Mark Koscielski reported that Ryan Thomas Sandoval had purchased a set of guns, clips and ammunition just minutes after another customer had asked the price of those items.

The ATF checked its records and found that Sandoval had purchased 21 handguns. When questioned by ATF agents, Sandoval admitted that he was buying weapons for others, and using the proceeds to feed his heroin habit, court records show. He was recruited as an informant, but within several months the relationship failed as investigations determined that he was involved in property crimes and drug trafficking.

In early 2012, Sandoval continued to purchase firearms. Weapons bought by Sandoval were later seized from a vehicle recovered after a police chase in Crystal and during a search warrant in Chicago, according to the U.S. Justice Department.

In September, he got a prison sentence of 30 months.

Weak oversight

A 10-year-old federal law known as the Tiahrt Amendment dropped a veil around much of the gun trade. The Star Tribune filed a Freedom of Information Act request with the ATF that asked which Twin Cities gun dealers sold the most guns that ended up at crime scenes. A second FOIA request asked which gun dealers were required to file more paperwork after running afoul of ATF rules. Both requests were denied.

But in 2000, before the law passed, the ATF reported that about half of illegal crime guns come from corrupt dealers who hold federal firearms licenses (FFLs). Despite this, ATF inspectors rarely revoke licenses.

Today Minnesota has 2,688 licensees, most selling guns from their own home by appointment.

The local ATF office in St. Paul, which oversees federally licensed dealers in Minnesota, Wisconsin, North Dakota and South Dakota, has so few inspectors that each one has to police 330 gun dealers. A 2004 survey found that only Kansas City and Phoenix come close to the St. Paul office’s workload, while many other areas see about half that ratio.

“We want to tackle violent crime, but we have to be very clever about how we do it and we have to be very efficient about how we do it, because the number of IOIs [inspectors] is so small here,” Sweetow said.

The ATF refused a Star Tribune request for information on gun dealers who had lost their licenses or faced other penalties.

Wendell Hanson, 77, ran the Big Stone Area Rifle Club for years, but lost his federal firearms license when the ATF came calling three or four years ago citing troubles with his paperwork.

“They were saying that I willfully did these things, and omitted these things from the forms,” said the U.S. Army veteran. “It was just a plain mistake.”

“There are cases where dealers are audited and frequently they will find people who say they just can’t tell where the guns have gone,” said David Feinwachs, a local gun rights lawyer and the former longtime general counsel for the Minnesota Hospital Association. He now represents licensed gun dealers, primarily in zoning disputes. “There’s no paperwork, they’re not stolen, the dealers just can’t account for them.”

A 2004 U.S. Department of Justice Inspector General report found troubling holes in the nation’s regulation of licensed dealers, saying, “The ATF does not identify and conduct compliance inspections on all FFLs that exhibit indicators of gun trafficking.”

Three years later, the ATF inspected no more than 10 percent of active gun dealers and found some 31,000 guns had gone missing.

A dealer who loses track of a large volume of guns raises immediate suspicions, said Feinwachs.

“That would be like a pharmacy that couldn’t explain to you where 10,000 OxyContin tablets went,” he said.

Matt McKinney • 612-217-1747