The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives wants to require gun dealers in California, Arizona, New Mexico and Texas to report the sales of two or more rifles to the same customer within a five-day period, similar to a rule that exists for handgun sales. The goal of the plan is to crack down on problem gun dealers and buyers at a time of heightened drug cartel violence along the border.
The agency asked the White House for an emergency order that would allow ATF to quickly impose the requirement without public review. But the White House denied the request and told the agency that the proposal has to undergo a standard three-month review period that is open to public comment.
The plan could still be implemented, but not on the expedited timetable that the agency had wanted
"It's not against the law, and it's not going to be against the law, for you to buy 40, 50, even 100 of these weapons and put them in the bumper of your car and drive them around or even down to the border," said ATF spokesman Scot Thomasson. "This would just allow us to put out an investigative lead at the time of the sale."
Twenty people were indicted on federal charges last month for allegedly participating in a ring that bought more than 700 guns to be smuggled into Mexico for use by a drug cartel. In that case, individuals on several occasions bought dozens of AK-47s as well as .50-caliber high-powered rifles capable of shooting down airplanes, even after rifles they purchased earlier had been seized.
For example, police in Arizona, found nine AK-47 rifles hidden in a car bumper in late 2009.
The guns were tracked back to Sean Christopher Steward, who had bought them in a batch of 40 AK-47 type rifles at Lone Wolf Trading Co. the day before.
Just five days after this seizure, Steward bought 43 more AK-47 rifles and pistols, according to court records. Altogether, Steward bought at least 143 more weapons after the seizure, mostly AK-47s from Lone Wolf.
Almost all of the hundreds of guns identified in the indictment were sold by the Lone Wolf Trading Co., which was also identified in a Washington Post investigative series last year as the top seller of weapons found at Mexican crime scenes.
The shop is in a cookie cutter strip mall off a busy Phoenix area street that also has a brake shop and a grocery store. Target practice posters outlining the human body hang on its windows facing outward.
Dozens of assault rifles blanket the walls behind the glass counter, and the handguns are displayed beneath the glass. According to court records, the store would have been paid several hundred thousand dollars for the weapons which were legally sold.
Owner Andre Howard has repeatedly refused to speak with The Associated Press. In a written statement, he said federal agencies "have limited resources of money and manpower" to tackle cartels.
Howard cooperated with law enforcement during the investigation, calling agents when individuals purchased dozens of AK-47s at a time, according to a federal official familiar with the case, speaking on condition of anonymity because the investigation is ongoing.
White House Office of Management and Budget spokeswoman Meg Reilly said the Obama administration called the ATF last week, informing the agency its proposal - which had been published in the Federal Register in December - was not deemed an emergency, which would have cut short public review.
"Our objective is to ensure that any information collection in this area is as informed and effective as possible, and public comment is critical to that outcome," Reilly said.
Reilly said that to speed things along, the White House allowed for the review clock to start when ATF posted the notice in December. That means the period is almost concluded, with Feb. 14 being the last day for the public to send comments.
New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, a proponent for the reporting requirements, said his coalition of more than 550 mayors strongly disagreed with the White House's move.
"The White House decided that the illegal trafficking of thousands of semiautomatic assault rifles from the U.S. to Mexico is not an emergency," he said. "These guns are fueling violence that has claimed more than 30,000 lives and putting our law enforcement officers at risk. ATF recognizes the emergency but we need the White House to give the agency the support it needs do its job effectively."
But Chris W. Cox, executive director of the NRA Institute for Legislative Action, said the ATF had made "a blatant attempt to circumvent the legislative arena and to abuse the 'emergency rule' process."
Since 2006, the ATF has seized more than 10,000 firearms and nearly one million rounds of ammunition destined for Mexico, where the public is not allowed to purchase or possess guns. Authorities in Mexico believe that a large percentage of guns used in police assassinations and cartel bloodshed originate in the United States.
Robert Bowman, a 66-year-old Glendale resident, was at Lone Wolf Trading Co. on Feb. 4 to buy some ammunition and said he was disappointed to learn that the store would sell AK-47s in bulk.
"If it were my business and some guy came in and wanted 20 AK-47s, I'd say, 'I'll sell you two - one for the right hand and one for the left hand - but I won't sell you 20,'" said Bowman, a former Army drill instructor who owns his own construction business. "I'm a business owner myself, and I will not conduct business if I don't like where the money's coming from."
Associated Press Writers Jacques Billeaud and Amanda Lee Myers in Phoenix contributed to this report.