U.S. unwittingly aids illegal firearm sales

April 25, 1994|By Scott Shane | Scott Shane,Sun Staff Writer

The federal government didn't intend to license Otis W. Cutler Jr. to supply guns to drug dealers. But that's what he did with the license they gave him.

Over seven months in late 1992 and early 1993, Cutler, a polished, college-educated former Marine with a hobbyist's fervor for firearms, ordered at least 184 handguns for delivery to his Northwest Baltimore home. Nearly all ended up in criminals' hands.

In the year since agents of the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms caught up with him, police have recovered 37 of Cutler's guns in crimes, including at least three murders. More than 100 are believed to be still out there, planted around the city like lethal mines.

"His guns are going to be used for years in crime in Baltimore City," says ATF Agent Richard Young, who led the investigation. "He did a lot of damage in a short time."

Cutler, 31, who recently reported to federal prison to begin serving a 27-month sentence for his illegal gun scheme, says he wasn't thinking about violence when he got in the gun business.

"I thought it was a way to pick up some extra bucks," he says.

He admits that what he did was wrong but bristles at any suggestion that he bears a share of blame for crimes committed with the guns he sold. In an ironic echo of the gun lobby's central thesis, he says: "We don't have a problem with guns. We have a problem with criminals."

The Cutler case illustrates one of the paths by which weapons move to criminals. What distinguishes this path is that the federal government lends a helping hand.

Mail-order purchase of handguns has been banned in the United States since 1968. Yet, like Otis Cutler, any federal firearms licensee -- 3,401 in Maryland, 258,000 nationwide -- can pick up the phone and order all the guns he wants from distributors for prompt, interstate delivery.

If the licensee then begins to resell the guns to criminals, chances are good that ATF will eventually catch on as police report serial numbers of guns picked up in crime. Last August, a Tennessee man was convicted of selling more than 7,000 guns illegally, one of scores of dealers prosecuted each year for selling to criminals.

In Maryland in 1991, Carroll L. Brown, a former Baltimore postal worker, was caught selling to drug dealers and sentenced to 21 months in prison. He sold 335 firearms before he was stopped.

Concluding that it is inefficient to lock up crooked dealers only after the damage is done, the Clinton administration has ordered ATF to scrutinize license applicants more closely.

Since February, applicants have had to supply fingerprints, photographs, extensive personal information and copies of state and local business licenses. The license fee was increased last year from $30 for three years to $200 for the first three years and $90 for a three-year renewal. The administration now is seeking to increase the fee to $600 a year.

ATF expects the stiffer review and higher fees eventually to eliminate the majority of license holders, who sell few or no guns. With fewer licensees to monitor, the thinking goes, the 240 ATF ** firearms inspectors nationwide will be able to spot lawbreakers earlier.

Most license holders simply want to purchase personal weapons at a dealer's discount and to get the stacks of catalogs and newsletters that gun companies send to licensees.

A typical story is that of Sam Borzymowski, a 46-year-old engineer for American Telephone & Telegraph Co. who got his license a dozen years ago. He has never sold a single gun, he says.

When he first applied, he had hopes of operating a firearms business from his Northeast Baltimore home. After checking city zoning regulations, he concluded it would entail "too much bureaucracy and legal hassle."

As a longtime hunter and occasional target shooter, however, he has continued to pay the license fee every three years merely to stay on the mailing lists. "A lot of [firearms licensees] are just like me," Mr. Borzymowski says. "They want to keep a toe in the industry. I'm just a name on a list, and as far as I'm concerned, I'm harmless."

Thousands of licensees

The list of federal licensees in Maryland alone runs to 143 inches of fine print, including names both explicit (Bear Arms Inc., Make My Day Guns & Ammo, The Second Amendment) and unlikely (Thompson Custom Cabinets, Pizza-Italia, Fort Foote Computer Services).

Many of the licensees have signed up after seeing the Shotgun News, a fat tabloid advertising newspaper published in Nebraska that is the gun trader's bible. There, dozens of solicitations offer "FFL Kits" -- collections of application forms and rule books to help people acquire federal firearms licenses.

"Sell guns the day you get your license. No delay!" says a recent front-page ad listing a Colorado address.

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