ATF cited stores that most often sold guns used in Chicago crimes, then let them off easy
City Hall identified stores whose weapons regularly were used in crimes. ATF has been lenient with those stores for violations such as selling to straw buyers, transferring guns without background checks and doctoring records.
Over the past two decades, the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives has let some of the Chicago area’s most notorious gun sellers off the hook for serious violations of federal law that included selling to straw purchasers, transferring guns without background checks and doctoring sales records.
ATF inspection records obtained by The Trace and USA Today for 13 gun dealers singled out by the city of Chicago as suppliers of a disproportionate number of guns used in crimes committed show the agency found more than 120 violations of the federal Gun Control Act of 1968 at these stores. Only one store passed its inspection with no violations.
The sweeping Gun Trace Report that then-Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s administration published in 2017 showed that nearly one in four guns picked up by the Chicago police between 2013 and 2016 came from just 10 stores in Illinois and northern Indiana. The top three stores together accounted for 2,000 crime guns.
ATF inspection records for the gun dealers named in the report show the agency routinely meted out softer penalties than warranted under its guidelines when it found violations at these stores.
That finding is in step with a pattern of conciliatory inspections nationwide that the news organizations uncovered last year. That investigation found between 2015 and 2017, the ATF regularly downgraded penalties for lawbreaking retailers across the United States. The review of more than 2,000 gun dealers showed many had flouted federal laws, selling weapons to convicted felons and domestic abusers, lying to inspectors and falsifying ledgers to hide their misconduct.
And when the ATF discovered these violations, it often issued penalties no stronger than warnings, sometimes repeatedly, and allowed stores to remain open.
The new batch of records provides details of inspections conducted as far back as 2009and suggests that ATF’s lax approach to investigating gun dealers has continued.
In seven instances related to the stores supplying Chicago with guns that were used in crime, the agency issued softer penalties than the violations warranted, according to its own guidelines.
In three cases, the agency discovered problems severe enough to warrant revoking a dealer’s licensebut issued warnings instead.
An ATF spokesperson said “supervisors and managers make recommendations based on the totality of the inspection and in accordance with policy to ensure consistent enforcement nationwide. ATF can only revoke for willful violations of the Gun Control Act.”
The National Shooting Sports Foundation, the industry’s trade association, did not respond to a request for comment.
Straw purchasing, light penalties
In four inspections at Blythe’s Sports Shop in Griffith, Indiana, between 2000 and 2009, ATF issued warnings to owner Rodger Blythe for violations that included selling to underage customers and to someone who identified themself as a convicted felon, failing to notify the ATF of multiple sales and failing to properly record firearm transfers.
In a 2011 inspection, investigators found the store had “aided the making of false statements” on federally mandated purchasing forms and sold to a person buying weapons on behalf of someone else —a federal crime known as straw purchasing.
Inspectors cited the “importance of preventing straw purchases and techniques for identifying straw purchasers was discussed at length” with Blythe in a 2009 review.
Earlier in 2011, he had attended a seminar, hosted by the National Shooting Sports Foundation, to refresh retailers on “the rules and regulations governing the sale and transfer of firearms.”
According to ATF guidelines, Blythe’s 2011 violations, along with a history of past warnings, warranted the revocation of his license to sell guns. Instead, inspectors chose to warn Blythe again.
Blythe, who sold his business in late 2016, said he was limited in what he could discuss by a contractual agreement with the store’s new owners. But he said he and his family had done all that they could to ensure they transferred guns exclusively to legal, law-abiding customers.
“Any violations uncovered after an inspection were clerical if anything,” Blythe said. “That store was our livelihood. It was never our intention to do anything wrong.”
He said in his 38 years running the store that his father had opened in 1952, he turned away hundreds of suspected straw buyers every year and shared information about those buyers with other gun stores to try to ensure they weren’t able to buy elsewhere.
“But what I can’t control is what happens to our guns after we sell them,” he said. “Let’s say we sell this gun to a 75-year-old guy who wants it for home protection. When he dies, his kids come in, and they sell his gun. Now, the gun is out there as a secondhand purchase. But, if it’s recovered from a crime scene, it gets traced back to us. How do you control that?”
He said he supports requiring private sellers to file paperwork with the federal government for every sale so that transfers on the secondary market can be tracked.
“It’s a double standard,” said the Rev. Ciera Bates-Chamberlain, executive director of the Illinois chapter of Live Free, a violence-prevention nonprofit. “We are always holding Black communities accountable for gun violence. But, when we have evidence that gun dealers broke the law, we’re not holding them accountable?”
Avoiding penalties again and again
Just before 5 a.m. on Dec. 16, 2019, Victor “Manny” Diaz parked his Buick Rendezvous at a Citgo gas station on the west side of Gary, Indiana, according to police reports and his family. As he did every morning before work, Diaz left the engine running and walked inside to buy snacks.
From a car at another pump, a man watched him go, waited, then stepped into the light morning snow, jogged to the Buick and climbed in the driver’s seat.
Diaz didn’t spot the thief until his driver’s-side door had been opened. He rushed outside and leaped onto the car, trying to yank the man out but wound up clinging to his side view mirror as the vehicle swerved onto the road.
The carjacker drove nearly a block before he pulled out a gun and fired through the window at Diaz, striking him twice in the face. Diaz, who fell to the roadside, died at a hospital an hour later.
No one has been arrested for Diaz’s killing.
But officers picked up a gun the next day from the car in which he had ridden to the gas station that morning: a Taurus G2C handgun with a turquoise receiver and an extended magazine.
The police in Gary said they suspected the gun had been used in Diaz’s killing.
It had been bought by a gun-trafficker a day earlier, according to court records, at Westforth Sports, a Gary gun store that had been cited in Chicago’s gun-trafficking report, which a spokesperson for Mayor Lori Lightfoot said the mayor’s office is working to update.
ATF documents show Westforth Sports had been cited for dozens of violations in the decades before Diaz’s killing.
In eight inspections between 1989 and 2011, investigators found the same problem: Westforth routinely failed to accurately record sales. That’s a serious violation of federal law and a red flag for gun-trafficking.
With each infraction, investigators issued a warning. And owner Earl Westforth promised to clean up his act.
The agency’s patience appeared to have worn out in 2012. After again finding evidence of unrecorded sales, it recommended revoking Westforth’s license. ATF higher-ups concurred.
But the agency never followed through, according to the records. The bureau’s upper brass delayed enforcing the revocation, citing an “open (criminal enforcement) investigation.”
A year later, they decided to close the inspection without any penalty so the agency could reinspect for “more timely compliance results.”
A subsequent 2013 inspection turned up the same violations as before, plus multiple straw sales and knowingly falsified sales logs.
Inspectors again recommended revoking Westforth’s license.
But the director of industry operations for the agency’s field division who had the final say on the inspection, downgraded the penalty to a warning. The director noted that Westforth was a “very large dealer” and that its straw purchases were processed by different employees.
Over the next three years, more than 340 guns from Westforth wound up at Chicago crime scenes.
Westforth Sports did not respond to a request for comment.
City Hall sues after ATF’s inaction
In light of ATF inaction, the city of Chicago has tried to force accountability through the courts. In April 2021, it sued Westforth Sports, accusing the store of having supplied more than 850 guns that ended up being used in crimes in Chicago between 2009 and 2016.
The city says Westforth is the biggest out-of-state supplier over that period of “crime guns” in Chicago — guns recovered by the police after they have been used in crimes or which are suspected of being used in crimes or that have been seized from people who possessed them illegally.
The lawsuit details sales made to 11 people later convicted of gun-trafficking —sales that the city’s lawyers say Westforth should have recognized as suspicious.
“It shows despite Westforth’s knowing about these issues and repeatedly being told about them, they continued the same practices time and time again,” said Stephen Kane, an attorney with the city’s law department who is representing City Hall in the lawsuit against Westforth. “They’re not acting like a responsible gun dealer.”
Everytown Law, the legal branch of the advocacy group Everytown for Gun Safety, is helping represent the city of Chicago in the case. (Everytown also provides grants to The Trace.)
An exhibit in one of the city’s court filings includes a copy of a gun-trace request sent to Westforth by ATF after the police recovered a Glock pistol the store sold to a man named Kadeem Fryer. The form asks whether the gun was part of a multiple sale, or whether any additional firearms had been purchased by Fryer from Westforth “at any given time.”
Westforth answered no to both questions.
But court records show the Glock was the 19th gun sold by the store to Fryer in a four-month span — and the second of two guns sold to Fryer in the previous three days.
The suit also details a series of sales made to Marqwan Blasingame, a gun-trafficker who confessed to buying the Taurus G2C the police suspected was used in Diaz’s killing. Blasingame made straw purchases on behalf of people prohibited from owning guns.
The police notified Westforth when they recovered the Taurus a day after its sale, but the store’s employees sold seven more pistols to Blasingame over the next 11 days, court records show.
On April 8, the city won a legal skirmish in the case when, over Westforth’s objection, a judge ordered the store to provide records of transactions with an additional 35 straw purchasers identified by the city. The judge also ordered Westforth to provide logbook entries regarding sales to Illinois customers either over the counter or through other gun stores.
Westforth said it has “never sold any handguns at retail to anyone other than a resident of Indiana” but has made “occasional direct transfers of firearms” to other federally licensed gun dealers.
Chicago doesn’t have jurisdiction to sue, according to Westforth’s lawyers, who say City Hall wouldn’t have any power to collect damages even if the case is allowed to proceed and it wins.
In 1998, the city and Cook County unsuccessfully sued 38 firearm retailers, distributors and manufacturers, seeking $433 million, arguing the industry had created a public nuisance with its products.
Willfulviolations tough to prove
ATF can revoke a gun dealer’s license only if the seller willfully violates the law. That’s different from most areas of civil and criminal law, in which defendants can’t use ignorance as an excuse for wrongdoing. To revoke a license, ATF inspectors have to prove a gun dealer intentionally disregarded the rules.
Proving that a dealer disregarded these laws intentionally can be difficult.
“The willful part is a hurdle because [dealers]can obviously push responsibility for the crime off on someone else,” said Rafiq Ahmad, a former ATF agent who worked as an industry operations investigator from 1992 to 1999.
Ahmad, who left the agency in 2015, said it was easy for dealers to claim they didn’t know they had sold to a straw purchaseror didn’t realize forms were missing required information.
Shore Galleries in Lincolnwood received warnings in 1999, 2003, 2006, 2007 and 2012 for violations that included selling to straw purchasers, failing to record firearm transfers and failing to report multiple handgun sales.
In a 2015 inspection, ATF investigators found evidence the store had failed to conduct background checks.
Store owner Mitch Shore told inspectors the store was “not making excuses, but they were sure other dealers have the same issues.”
In the inspection report, agents also said the store’s process for logging acquisitions and dispositions of firearms was “beginning to hinder ATF inspections” and “could possibly hinder tracing.” The agency had pushed the store in previous inspections to modernize its recordkeeping. Still, inspectors elected to issue Shore another warning.
From 2009 to 2016, the Chicago Police Department recovered more than 720 guns traced to Shore Galleries, according to the city’s report.
Shore Galleries representatives did not respond to a request for comment.
The city’s report also cites Chuck’s Gun Shop, Midwest Sporting Goods, Cabela’s, GAT Guns, Suburban Sporting Goods, Pelcher’s Shooter Supply, Sporting Arms & Supply, Bradis Inc., Bells Gun & Sport Shop and Ray O’Herron Co.
Biden efforts to strengthen ATF languish
David Chipman, a former ATF agent who works for the gun violence-prevention group Giffords, said the ATF’s conciliatory stance toward the industry is by design.
“A majority of the Senate wants the ATF to serve as a public relations firm for the industry,” Chipman said. “If the final litmus test is whether or not such-and-such ATF action is going to be good for the ATF-industry partnership, then that doesn’t make for a robust and strong public safety-oriented compliance organization.”
An ATF spokesperson said industry outreach “helps to educate and keep licensees in compliance with federal law and regulations,” and the vast majority of gun dealers abide by federal laws and don’t commit willful violations of the Gun Control Act.
Chipman was nominated by President Joe Biden to lead ATF but fell one vote shy of confirmation after a debate in the Senate over his association with gun violence-prevention groups. Biden withdrew the nomination last September.
A few months earlier, the Biden administration had announced steps to toughen penalties on lawbreaking gun stores. In addition to launching a new gun-trafficking strike force in Chicago and four other cities, the administration ordered ATF to institute a “zero-tolerance” policy for dealers who willfully violate certain laws and called on Congress to increase the agency’s funding to beef up inspections.
Less than a month later, House Democrats responded with the Keeping Gun Dealers Honest Act, a bill that would make it much easier for ATF to shut down troublesome gun stores. If passed, the bureau no longer would need to prove that a dealer intentionally violated the law to revoke its license.
The proposed law also would enable ATF to fine retailers as much as $10,000 for violations and increase how often the agency is allowed to inspect gun retailers from one to three times a year. The bill has languished in committee.
Illinois has implemented its own controls to beef up regulatory constraints on gun retailers. In January 2019, the General Assembly passed a law requiring all gun stores to certify their licenses with the Illinois State Police. To comply, retailers must install security cameras, implement alarm monitoring systems for their inventory and switch to electronic record-keeping systems. All gun store employees must undergo two hours of training a year covering applicable state and federal laws and regulations.
‘Lawful but awful’ gun dealers
Many of the violations identified in the ATF’s inspection reports didn’t rise to the level of revocation even by the Biden administration’s revised standards.
At Shore Galleries, for example, inspectors attributed incomplete sales forms to clerical errors instead of any willful attempt to skirt requirements.
At GAT Guns in East Dundee, inspectors found employees had made record-keeping errors because they were learning a new computer record-keeping system.The Chicago police recovered 219 guns from GAT Guns between 2013 and 2016 — the sixth-most from any store.
Josh Scharff, a lawyer with the gun violence-prevention group Brady who helps manage the organization’s database of ATF inspection reports, said the bureau’s inability to crack down on “lawful but awful” gun stores highlights the need for manufacturers to monitor their own distribution chains.
“Manufacturers could require the dealers that carry their guns to report how many crime gun-trace requests they receive from the ATF in any given year,” Scharff said. “They could ask that dealers report back on how many multiple handgun sales they made or to share the results of compliance inspections at their stores. If manufacturers requested dealers share all that information as a condition for carrying their products, they’d contribute enormously to the reduction of trafficked firearms in the U.S.”
In 2004, the now-defunct gun violence-prevention nonprofit Americans for Gun Safety Foundation published a report similar to Chicago’s 2017 Gun Trace Report. The foundation analyzed ATF data to determine which dealers in America had sold the most guns traced by police between 1996 to 2000.
It listed 120 stores that had sold more than 200 firearms traced by police during that period. Six of them — Chuck’s Guns, Bradis Inc., Westforth Sports, Suburban Sporting Goods, Blythe’s Sports Shop and GAT Guns — appeared on Chicago’s gun-trafficking report almost two decades later.
Chuck’s Gun Shop & Pistol Range topped the list from 1996 to 2000 with more than 2,000 traces — the most prolific crime gun seller in the nation.
In 2017, it maintained its title, at least for the city of Chicago: The police recovered nearly 1,000 of the store’s guns between 2013 and 2016.
Inspections data obtained by The Trace show since 2010, the ATF has found Chuck’s — which did not respond to a request for comment — guilty only of occasional clerical errors.
Contributing: Brian Freskos, Frank Main