Three Days Behind the Counter at a Vegas Gun Shop
On a recent Monday, the Smith & Wesson 9mm Model SD9VE handgun was selling briskly at the Westside Armory, 1,900 square feet of guns and ammo in a tidy shopping mall anchored by a Vons grocery and also featuring a nail salon, Starbucks, and Buffalo Wild Wings. The mall is 15 minutes southwest of the Las Vegas Strip but feels worlds away from the garish casinos. The store’s owner, Cameron Hopkins, bundles the SD9VE with a Streamlight TLR-3 flashlight, which attaches beneath the barrel, as well as two 16-round magazines. The package goes for $399.99, down from $526.70.
“It’s a nightstand pistol,” Hopkins says to one potential customer, a tall man in a blue sweatsuit. “Perfect for home defense, and you can’t beat the price.” The guy ponders for 20 minutes, musing about the danger of nighttime intruders entering his house from an adjacent golf course, and then buys one.
Handguns at Westside Armory—Glock, Smith & Wesson, Colt, and Sig Sauer—are displayed in waist-high glass cases. Rifles and shotguns hang from the walls. To get to the firearms, customers first pass racks of holsters, goggles, ear protection, magazines, speed loaders, range bags, cleaning solutions, and paper targets—zombies, grimacing thugs, Osama bin Laden. Boxes of ammunition line one wall, interspersed with such novelties as red-white-and-blue colored ceramic lawn gnomes bearing miniature guns and hand grenades.
The main business of Westside Armory, though, is handguns, mostly semiautomatic pistols, which carry ammunition in rectangular magazines that snap into the grip. Handgun sales outnumber rifle and shotgun sales by about 20 to 1, although some of the most expensive items the store sells are custom-made rifles that retail for $2,500 or more.
Westside Armory took in $190,000 in December, its highest mark since opening in the summer of 2014. That’s consistent with a nationwide boom. In December, the Federal Bureau of Investigation did a record 3.3 million background checks, half a million more than the previous monthly high in the wake of the Newtown, Conn., elementary school massacre in 2012.
“It’s been this way for the last seven years,” since President Obama got into office, says Mike Moore, Westside’s account manager at RSR Group, a large national gun-and-ammunition wholesaler based in Winter Park, Fla. Moore and others in the industry marvel at the staying power of what they call “the Obama surge”—elevated sales driven by the (unfulfilled) fear of tougher federal gun control.
“There’s four things selling guns at the moment,” says Rocky Fortino, one of Hopkins’s employees. “One: ‘I’m afraid they’re going to make it harder to buy a gun, so I better get one now.’ Two: ‘I’m afraid of home invasions and other violent crime.’ Three: ‘I’m afraid of mass shootings.’ And four: ‘I’m afraid of terrorism.’” On the last concern, Fortino and I agree that Westside Armory doesn’t really offer much in the way of antiterrorism weaponry.
Reality rarely enters into the equation of fear. Crime is actually down in Las Vegas, as it is nationwide. And President Obama’s most recent executive actions on guns—announcing in January that his administration would more strictly enforce existing rules governing dealer licensing—“won’t have much practical effect at all,” Hopkins says. Yet any time the president opens his mouth about guns, anxiety jumps. “What if Obama does something that makes me have to give my new gun back?” one customer asks. “I don’t think that’s likely,” salesman Jeff Giese says, reassuringly, as he rings up the man’s transaction for another Smith & Wesson 9mm.
Offering firearms at a discount, as the Westside Armory often does, may increase the danger of suspicious transactions, especially straw purchases, where someone with a clean record buys one or more guns for a person prohibited by law from doing so. “The last thing we want to do is put a gun out there in the wrong hands,” says Fortino, a retired suburban police chief from Illinois.
With Hopkins’s approval, I spend three days observing from behind the counter at Westside Armory, on the condition I won’t risk driving away customers by interrupting to ask to quote them by name. On the floor, I listen to the sales patter and consumer comments. I observe diligence, for the most part, about following the rules. And yet I also witness some troubling slip-ups, including one that leads to a visit to the store by two agents from the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives. “We’re not perfect,” Hopkins says.
Hopkins, the 59-year-old co-founder of Westside Armory, bought out his business partner last October. In 2014, Las Vegas already had 49 other gun shops, he says, but “the demand for new guns is there, and I saw it as a good investment.” A dedicated big-game hunter, Hopkins has worked in the industry for 35 years as a marketing executive, consultant, and magazine editor. Politically he’s libertarian; by disposition, he displays good-humored amusement at an outsider’s endless questions about the minutiae of his business.
With an estimated 300 million firearms already in private hands and surveys showing that a third or so of American households possess a gun, one might assume that the consumer market is saturated. “It’s not,” Hopkins says. “Gun owners are buying more guns, and lately we’re seeing some first-time buyers, too.” During my stint in his store, I meet both types of customer. One man wearing a sun visor says he already owns a Beretta pistol but has his eye on the flashlight-equipped Smith & Wesson 9mm that’s on sale. At the last minute, he changes his mind and purchases a five-shot S&W pocket revolver similar to one he once kept in the glove compartment of his car. “That one got stolen,” he tells Giese, the salesman, who nods sympathetically.
“I hope he’s more careful with this one,” Giese, a former police officer, tells me later, “because that stolen gun is being used for crime.”
Jay and April Randazzo are looking at a Glock 43, a sleek little 9mm six-shot pistol designed for people who take their gun with them to work and on errands. Jay plans to obtain a Nevada concealed-carry permit that will allow him to keep the Glock in a holster when he makes his rounds as a Coors delivery-truck driver. “Better safe than sorry,” he tells me after agreeing to be interviewed. April already owns a larger Glock 19, which she keeps at home. They pay $419.99 plus tax for the Glock 43. “It doesn’t matter whether you live in a gated community or not,” April says. “There are burglaries all the time.”
As a statistical matter, Las Vegas enjoyed a 48 percent decline in crime from 2004 through 2014, the most recent year for which statistics are available. The burglary rate declined 37 percent during that time; the murder rate, 44 percent. That said, Las Vegas has a higher-than-average violent crime index compared with other large cities.
“I hate that fear sells so many guns,” Hopkins says. In fact, his advertising stresses insecurity. “Your home is your castle. Defend it against the barbarians,” said one recent Westside ad for a $599.99 Smith & Wesson M&P AR-15 rifle equipped with a 30-round Magpul magazine. Asked about the contradiction, Hopkins says, “In the end, I guess I’m just a capitalist.”
Most of the rifles on Westside’s racks are military-style semiautomatic AR-15s, which accommodate 20- or 30-round magazines. These weapons fire one round per trigger pull, as do semiautomatic pistols. Popular with mass murderers for their large ammo capacity but rarely turning up in ordinary street crime, AR-15s are used legally for competition, home defense, and, to some degree, hunting. When liberals talk about banning assault rifles, they’re referring to AR-15s.
During my time in the Westside Armory, only one customer inquires about a rifle: A professional violinist brings in his AK-47 to get the scope adjusted. He says he uses the semiautomatic gun, which derives from the famous Russian military model, for target shooting at local ranges. “I don’t know much about how it works,” he explains. The scope gets fixed at no charge.
Hopkins has a Federal Firearms License, or FFL, to operate Westside Armory. FFL holders have to perform background checks; gun transfers by unlicensed sellers don’t require a background check. Hopkins’s employees need no special license or certification to work at the store. Westside also has a special federal license that allows it to assemble and sell fully automatic machine guns, which can fire a stream of bullets for as long as the trigger is depressed. Under U.S. law, machine guns can be sold only to law enforcement agencies or other holders of the difficult-to-obtain license. As a practical matter, ordinary citizens can’t purchase a machine gun, but there are about 150,000 in private circulation among licensees. Crimes committed with machine guns are almost unheard of.
Hopkins divides his time between the store and a separate ammunition-supply business he operates. He recently purchased the trademark for a long-defunct hollow-point ammo brand called Super Vel, which he plans to revive with retro ’60s packaging. “For some people, nostalgia sells guns and ammo, just like it sells cars or clothing,” he explains.
The persistence of demand for firearms in the U.S. becomes the subject of a get-together at the store with Stuart Anderson Wheeler, a visiting fellow big-game hunter who runs an eponymous business in London that manufactures bespoke hunting guns. Anderson Wheeler finds American gun culture perplexing, especially the shrill tone of the National Rifle Association. “I mean, all the talk of terrorism and shootings—it’s pretty extreme. Can they be serious?” he asks.
“They know what sells,” says Hopkins.
“I’m all for guns,” Anderson Wheeler responds. “But how many does a person need?”
“You Brits don’t have our traditions,” Hopkins says. “To Americans, owning a gun is a connection back to the settling of the Western frontier: cowboys and Indians and all that.”
“And fear,” says Anderson Wheeler.
Hopkins and his employees unfailingly do background checks but admit the protections aren’t foolproof. The background check begins with customers filling out ATF Form 4473, which requires them to swear they aren’t the subject of a felony indictment or conviction; a fugitive, a user of illegal drugs, or someone who’s been “adjudicated” a danger to themselves or others as a result of “mental defect”; or the subject of a dishonorable military discharge, a misdemeanor conviction for a crime of domestic violence, or a domestic-violence restraining order. Also barred are aliens illegally in the U.S. and anyone who’s ever renounced U.S. citizenship. Lying on a 4473 is a felony.
Once the customer has signed the form, the gun store salesman makes a phone call to the FBI or, in some states, including Nevada, to a state law enforcement agency that takes responsibility for combing through computerized crime and mental health records. The phone checks take anywhere from 5 to 45 minutes and yield one of three results: proceed, denied, or delayed. A delay occurs when the FBI or state authority wants more time to assess local records, which sometimes are difficult to find because they haven’t been digitized. If a delay isn’t resolved within 72 hours, federal law allows the firearm sale to proceed.
The potential consequences of completing a sale after an unresolved background check were made clear last June in South Carolina. Dylann Roof, the man accused of killing nine people in a historically black church in Charleston, was able to buy the .45-caliber Glock pistol he used in the attack after the three-day deadline expired. The FBI disclosed in July that it delayed the transaction to scrutinize Roof’s state arrest record. But the FBI examiner didn’t discover Roof had admitted to possession of a controlled substance—a basis for denial of a firearm—until after the three-day deadline.
Regardless of the 72-hour rule, Westside Armory, like Walmart, won’t sell a weapon without a background-check approval. “It’s not worth the risk,” says Hopkins. “Not all of my competitors follow the same ethics.”
More generally, he says he instructs his salesmen to refrain from selling guns to anyone they suspect may be up to no good. Store manager Bradford Barnes says he refused to sell a pair of handguns to a young man 15 minutes before closing time last New Year’s Eve. “Didn’t smell right to me,” he says. “That’s just a weird time to go out shopping for two guns.”
Hopkins says that his salesmen simply ignore some scruffily dressed young window shoppers, and “definitely if they smell of weed.” Suspect browsers typically leave the store without being served, he says.
That’s not exactly what happens when two twentysomething men in drooping trousers and backward baseball caps ask to look at Glocks. Salesman Alec Wilson shows them the guns and answers their questions. “That’s a cool motherf---ing gun,” one says about a .40-caliber display gun. Wilson nods in a neutral fashion.
The exchange takes a turn, however, when one of the shoppers asks that an informal background check be done on him, “just to see if I pass.” At that point Wilson shakes his head, puts away the display weapons, and indicates there will be no sale. The shoppers, grumbling and looking disappointed, depart empty-handed.
Wilson tells me later that people seek to test the background-check system on a daily basis, presumably to see whether some infraction from their past gets flagged. The rule is that they get sent away, the salesman says.
But at least one questionable customer is allowed to buy: a man who enters the store and without pausing or looking around expresses interest in acquiring three identical Smith & Wesson 9mm pistols. He volunteers that one gun is for him, one for his father, and the third for his brother. Told that each prospective owner should come in on their own and go through the background check, the customer explains that he already has a Nevada concealed-carry permit, which entitles him by law to buy weapons without a point-of-sale background check.
To get a concealed-carry permit, an applicant goes through a more thorough investigation and has to complete an eight-hour safety course. Ultimately, the customer compromises and walks out of the store with two Smith & Wessons. But to my eye that still seems to be a violation of the 4473 requirement that the purchase is being made for the “actual buyer of the firearm.”
Hopkins disagrees: “I view that as a legitimate sale because the man has a concealed-carry permit.” He goes on to note that the customer had to fill out a “multiple sale” form, which informs federal and local authorities of any purchase of more than one gun at a time.
Recently, the store made a mistake that drew attention from the ATF. In mid-December, a man in his 50s sought to buy a rifle and a handgun but encountered a delay on his background check. Later the same day, the man’s wife attempted to buy the same two firearms. Aware that the couple was trying again, Fortino nevertheless put through a background check for the wife, Hopkins says. She encountered a delay, as well.
A week later, the government denied both husband and wife permission to buy the two weapons. The guns never left the store, but “Rocky should not have done the second background check, given the circumstances,” Hopkins concedes.
The situation comes to light when a pair of ATF agents shows up at the store as part of their investigation of the husband and wife. The agency had flagged as suspicious a pair of denied background checks to people with the same last name.
“The good news is the system worked,” says Hopkins. He adds that the ATF called him in for a meeting he describes as “shock therapy to make sure we understood we’d screwed up.” To ensure it doesn’t happen again, Hopkins says he’s instituting an “in-service training program” to help his employees spot straw purchasing and other improprieties. ATF Special Agent Helen Dunkel declines to comment, saying the agency “is not allowed to confirm any possible investigations.”
“The vast majority of gun dealers are trying to do the right thing and enforce the law, but a handful are negligent about straw purchasing or actively look the other way,” says Jonathan Lowy, legal director at the Brady Center to Prevent Gun Violence. Using mandatory serial numbers, the ATF can trace guns found at crime scenes back to where they were sold. “Bad apple” stores tend to receive a lot of crime-gun trace inquiries, Lowy says; many stores receive no traces at all. Westside so far hasn’t received a single crime-gun trace during its 18 months in business, according to Hopkins.
For the most part, crime isn’t a gun store problem. Criminals as a rule “don’t stroll into a gun store and fill out a 4473,” Hopkins says. Social science research backs him up. A study published last year by scholars at the University of Chicago and Duke University, who surveyed inmates at Chicago’s Cook County jail, found that criminal offenders rarely obtain guns through formal channels. Just 1 in 10 of the inmates said they purchased their weapons at a gun store or pawnshop. About 70 percent said they got their weapons from friends, family, or street connections, and that firearms routinely passed through multiple owners.
“Background checks won’t catch everything,” says Hopkins. Under the current system, only FFLs are obliged to do the checks. “Private” sellers who operate at gun shows—or from their kitchen tables or via the Internet—don’t have to follow the rules, a gap sometimes referred to loosely as the gun-show loophole. In a soon-to-be-published survey of more than 2,000 gun owners, researchers at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health found that 40 percent said they’d most recently acquired a firearm without a background check from a non-FFL.
Like many FFL holders, Hopkins would have no objection to universal background checks for all gun transfers. But the NRA does, and, as a result, the loophole will likely persist for a good long while. Meantime, Hopkins expects the debate over the issue in the 2016 presidential election to drive more sales at Westside Armory. He says he doesn’t relish the candidacy of a Hillary Clinton or Bernie Sanders, the two Democratic hopefuls, inspiring shopping sprees, but business is business, after all.