William Debow, the Burke County gun dealer who not only continued to operate the Ponderosa Trading Company after being arrested on federal firearms charges but bragged about it on Facebook, pled guilty Monday to illegally selling guns to convicted felons and out-of-state residents. He agreed to a plea deal arranged by his attorney, Pete Theodocian. He was sentenced to 40 months in federal prison, given a $10,000 fine and three years of supervised release.
Debow, 52, was indicted April 3 after agents from the Beureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives searched the home of a convicted felon and found a stash of 26 weapons, most of which were sold by Debow. Furthermore, the felon told agents Debow advised him on how to sidestep the law — by having his mother fill out the required forms.
This is by far the most high-profile area arrest and clearly Debow was intentionally circumventing the law. But in the current anti-gun environment, many area gun dealers are expressing frustration over what they feel is an increased attention to paperwork.
“I think the ATF is getting a lot of push from the present administration, which anyone who’s done much reading knows is hostile to firearm ownership,” says Jerry Henry, the executive director of Georgia Carry, a gun advocacy group. “They’re also, every time you turn around, trying to change the ATF rules on various items, and I don’t see how that’s going to change under the present administration.”
Those changes have had a significant impact on several area gun dealers, who have had their Federal Firearms Licenses (FFLs) revoked because of what some are saying is a focus on technicalities.
“I’ve heard that they’re getting to be sticklers about a lot of things,” Henry says. “I understand they are supposed to be… somewhat. But if someone writes a two instead of a three, it shouldn’t mean you ought to jerk their license.”
According to Henry’s understanding, many of the problems ATF is encountering among FFL holders are clerical-type problems, like when a serial number gets improperly inputted. That’s an understanding shared by many in the business, who acknowledge the incredible power wielded by the ATF.
Speaking on the condition of anonymity, a former FFL licensee who ran afoul of the ATF because of such paperwork violations, lost his license and is now attempting to get it back again, agrees that it’s a difficult time to be in the gun business.
“It’s really a black and white thing with them,” he says. “What we got revoked for was something that five or 10 years ago we would have had a conference call about. They would have yelled at us and we would have gone on with our business.”
And he’s not the only one.
“Over the last couple of years, the amount of revocations the ATF has been doing is nuts,” he says. “I know nine or 10 places in Georgia and a few places in South Carolina — it’s unheard of. They’ve always given big attention to detail, but the penalties are just going to the maximum.”
Though he says he feels the additional scrutiny is unfair, he admits that everyone knows going into business that the ATF can pretty much do whatever it wants.
According to statistics supplied by the Federal Bureau of Investigation, background checks processed through the National Instant Criminal Background Check System (NICS), the system used by Federal Firearms Licensees to determine whether a buyer is eligible to purchase a firearm, have steadily grown since the program began in 1998.
In the election year of 2012, the NICS conducted over 19.5 million background checks. Reports indicate that 2013 had an even greater number of checks.
For comparison, in 1999, the first full year of the program, the NICS processed 9.1 million background checks.
The Washington Times has reported that NICS checks have increased by 66 percent since President Obama took office, which is significant since the administration is considered to be unfriendly to gun ownership.
Not surprisingly, industry reports show gun manufacturers enjoying large increases in sales. Last year, Smith & Wesson experienced a 25 percent increase in sales over the year before, while sales at Freedom Group, which owns Remington and Bushmaster, were up 47 percent in the first three quarters of 2013.
And with many manufacturers unable to fill orders, experts anticipate a period of scarcity to continue. Fearing increased regulation, manufacturers are leery of making the enormous investment to open more production facilities, and because gun owners fear losing their ability to purchase firearms, the demand is unlikely to decrease.