By Terrence McCoy
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In all, Vega could have walked away with a six-figure profit if he hadn't gotten caught. In his would-be infomercial, he could thank state lawmakers who have enacted laws that allow bulk purchases and federal sentencing guidelines that promote slap-on-the-wrist plea bargains. Laws allow foreign nationals to buy large caches of guns with little oversight in the United States, which has become an unwitting supplier of global insurrections. Likewise, several South Florida arms smugglers have avoided serious punishment by using federal laws that give breaks to snitches, with many of them turning informant on fugitives.
Because of its connection with Latin America and its buyer-friendly gun laws, South Florida has become a prime shopping ground for gunrunners. Moreover, federal agents acknowledge that the war on terrorism isn't likely to eliminate South Florida's reputation as a place to buy and smuggle guns. Months after the convictions of some of South Florida's most famous gunrunners, court papers and federal agents describe just how easy it is for terrorists from Ireland, South America, and the Caribbean to make piles of money supplying rebels with guns.
With an unkempt beard, a few extra pounds around his waist, and an old olive T-shirt hanging from his shoulders, Doug Thurmond looks a lot like the comic book dealer from The Simpsons. On a recent Sunday morning, he's sitting behind rows of assault rifles and shotguns for sale at a gun show in Fort Lauderdale's War Memorial Auditorium. He came over from Florida's west coast to sell weapons from what he describes as his private collection.
"Look, you can thank the commissioners of Broward County for the five-day waiting period," Thurmond laments. In Florida, he explains, counties can set their own rules regulating firearms dealers, and commissioners in Broward, Miami-Dade, and Palm Beach counties require the long wait for gun deals. Most Florida counties require only three days. "But there's an easy way to avoid it," Thurmond says, leaning in to explain.
Gun shows have long been notorious as shopping centers for illegal gun buyers. Many of the gunrunners nabbed in South Florida have told authorities they began their operations by buying weapons from traveling gun shows held nearly every weekend. Irish Republican Army operatives, for instance, arranged the illegal purchase of thousands of firearms in 1999 at a gun show at the National Guard armory in Fort Lauderdale. Jamie Higgins, a special agent with the ATF in Miami, says it's not uncommon to find disreputable dealers at gun shows. "If you ask 50 of them, chances are you'll find one, or maybe more," willing to sell guns illegally, Higgins says.
Thurmond explains that avoiding the law doesn't mean you have to break it. For $35, anyone with a clean criminal record can get a concealed-weapons permit that allows the holder to shop freely for firearms. In fact, there's a two-hour concealed-weapons-permit class held at the gun shows for $35. "Just go take the class," Thurmond says. "Then you can take home anything you want -- today."
Nearby, dealer Michael Henock of Pembroke Pines tells the same story. "All you need is a concealed-weapons permit," he says. "Why bother doing it without the paperwork? I'm not going to jail for that." Henock displays his rows of rifles, including the Bushmaster. "Name me a price," he says. "I'm here to sell guns today."
Get past the waiting period and the market is wide open. Laws that forbid the sale of some high-powered assault rifles are laughed off by most dealers. Henock and Thurmond and most of the other dealers at the gun show display rows of guns that include those outlawed by the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act of 1994, which is commonly called the assault weapons ban. Thanks to a loophole in the law, dealers are free to sell outlawed assault weapons made before the ban, sometimes for double the price of guns made after the tougher rules went into effect. The banned guns are indicated by tags the dealers attach that brag "pre-ban." Guns with the tag include those with holders for bayonets, foldable stocks, and ribbed sheaths on the barrel to suppress the flash of firing. The foldable stock and bayonet comes in handy during close combat, and the muzzle suppressor becomes crucial when you don't want the enemy to spot your covert location. Those attributes might not sound important for home protection or hunting, but the guns can make a good Christmas present for your favorite rebel or sniper.
Gun control advocates have long argued that the ban has become indicative of the holes in federal firearms laws, which have long made the United States a shopping ground for terrorists and guerrillas. Most gunrunners caught in South Florida have bought their weapons legitimately from dealers selling firearms manufactured legally. The lax rules have attracted gun dealers even from countries renowned for their supply of guns, says H. Sterling Burnett, senior fellow with the National Center for Policy Analysis in Dallas. According to authorities, smugglers probably come to the United States because of the ease of sticking the guns in the mail, as opposed to crossing foreign borders with them, and because of the supply of stolen military arms in America. "It doesn't make sense to me when people like Pakistanis are coming to the United States to buy guns, but they apparently do," Burnett says. "In Pakistan, there's whole towns set up to do nothing else but manufacture guns, and they have to come here to buy them? What's wrong with that picture?"