Rodricks: Anyone watching stockpiles of weapons?

Intelligence agencies look for terrorists, but not home-grown arsenals

  • Guns seized in raid.
Guns seized in raid. (Courtesy Prince George's…)
July 30, 2012|Dan Rodricks

Here's an assumption any post-9/11American might make: Someone in a dark room full of computers and video monitors deep inside one of our snoopy federal law enforcement agencies is tracking the purchases of large caches of weapons and ammunition by anyone at any time anywhere in the country, including Anne Arundel County.

Isn't that the sort of thing we've been paying for with our federal taxes over the last decade?

People who buy explosives for bombs or enough weapons to outfit a small army — they're monitored by someone deep inside the Department of Homeland Security and our vast array of federal agencies, right?

Like a lot of my fellow Americans, I assume highly trained security analysts are constantly watching for electronic purchases of numerous firearms and ammo, and throw red flags when they see a trend that looks like trouble.

It might creep out civil-liberties purists, but most rational Americans alarmed by the 9/11 terrorist attacks probably take comfort in knowing Big Brother is always on duty, watching for nuts, foreign or domestic, who want to kill us en masse.

But as we've learned in the aftermath of the movie theater massacre in Aurora, you can buy 6,350 rounds of ammo over the Internet within 120 days and no one in any kind of authority will have a clue.

Last week, police in Anne Arundel and Prince George's counties displayed more than 20 guns — handguns, shotguns, rifles — and thousands of rounds of ammunition confiscated from the Crofton apartment of a young man who is alleged to have threatened his boss and co-workers. The boss reported the threat to police, and police believe they averted a "violent episode" by taking it seriously.

The list of seized items was long, and included an assault rifle that sells for $1,200, advertised as a "fully military-spec compliant rifle for law enforcement ... now available to everyone." There were 40 steel ammo cases and a night-vision scope that retails for about $2,500. By my rough estimate, the value of the Crofton cache is about $15,000.

The young man hasn't been charged with anything; he's undergoing psychiatric treatment and evaluation.

Police tell us that at least 15 of his weapons were registered — not surprising, but troubling nonetheless. As we've learned before, and in Aurora most recently, there's no need for disturbed people with no criminal or mental health issue in their backgrounds to go into the gun underground for their weapons. They can purchase all they want from licensed dealers.

Which poses the question: Isn't anyone paying attention to people who stockpile weapons like this?

The answer: No.

The young man's Crofton apartment is about 10 miles from the National Security Agency in Fort Meade, but it's a good bet that no one there knew about the arsenal. He wasn't on the government's terrorist watch list, after all.

"There is no limit [on guns] nor mechanism for the federal government to track how many firearms an individual has," says Daniel Webster, co-director of the Center for Gun Policy and Research at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health. "Federal law prohibits [theBureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives] or any other federal agency from creating a registry of gun owners and their guns."

Webster refers to the Firearms Owners Protection Act, passed by Congress in 1986. While licensed gun dealers must notify ATF when someone purchases more than one handgun within five consecutive business days, there is little in the law that requires federal monitoring of the commerce in guns. And the online sales of firearms, theoretically the easiest to watch and trace, is unregulated.

"Some states, like Maryland and California, have a handgun registry and could, in theory, track how many handguns a person has," says Webster. "But no state has set a limit on the number of guns or amount of ammo a person may have. I know of no state statute requiring the reporting of bulk ammo sales. The gun lobby has been strong against any and all gun regulation, but gets very worked up about registries, thinking they enable the government to confiscate weapons from law-abiding citizens, thus allowing the government more power over people."

It's a paradox — people paranoid of their own government, the same government they count on to protect them from evil-doers around the world and under our noses. We'll condemn the intelligence agencies for any failure to detect a terrorist plot, but not at the expense of some dubious right to buy and possess as many guns and bullets as we want. We live in fear of weapons of mass destruction while ignoring the ones in our midst.

From the president on down, we won't even talk about striking some reasonable balance in law that allows for people to own guns for sport or protection while limiting the number and kill-capacity of those in legal commerce. We don't even task our federal agencies with monitoring the marketplace for people who are stockpiling scary amounts of weapons and ammunition. We're at some crazy place in this country.

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