In West Virginia, a woman marched through the front door of Uncle Sam’s Loans, a cavernous pawn shop full of hunting bows, fishing lures, and camping supplies for residents of this small Appalachian town. Behind the counter hung the fulcrum of Uncle Sam’s business: guns.
The woman showed her testimonials, which revealed she was an investigator with the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, the watchdog for the country’s arms industry. She was here to make sure Uncle Sam’s got it in order.
This was the third ATF inspection of Uncle Sam in seven years. The two most recent audits revealed that the store had transferred weapons without performing background checks and failed to provide safety advice to handgun buyers. ATF records show that at one point more than 600 firearms that should have been in stock could not be found – a red flag for the arms trade.
In both cases, the violations were serious enough to warrant Uncle Sam’s license to sell weapons, according to ATF records. But officials decided to go easy on the store, officially warn its owners, and give them one more chance to prove they could obey the rules.
When the investigator leafed through handwritten ledgers in spring 2014, she found that the situation had barely improved. Sales records were incomplete, the store did not report the required information to law enforcement, and security advisories were still pending. The inspector typed up her findings and sent them to her superiors.
Your decision: Issue another warning.
Months later, the ATF learned that Uncle Sam’s was the backbone of a widespread arms trade. Witnesses told the agency that Steven Adkins, a longtime shop clerk who had acquired a stake in the company, had recruited a number of people, including a colleague’s girlfriend and brother-in-law, to forge paperwork, it appeared as if they had bought guns in legitimate transactions, according to court records. In reality, the guns were used to bribe coal officials in a pay-to-play program at a local mine. Others were sold on the black market, witnesses said.
An accomplice told investigators that “hundreds, if not thousands, of firearms” were trafficked through Uncle Sam. According to court records, he remembered parked his truck in the back of the store, loaded guns and turned them over to a convicted felon. Another accomplice said he drove Uncle Sam’s guns to Adkins’ house, where Adkins allegedly sold them from his basement.
Adkins pleaded guilty to supporting a false testimony regarding the purchase of more than 50 firearms from late 2008 through August 2014. He was sentenced to 10 months in prison. No one else has been convicted of trafficking in human beings.
“Everyone knew where to get a gun: Adkins,” said Roger D.B. Muncy, whose father founded Uncle Sam’s in 1975. “We’re all human, but you don’t send guns through the back door.”
Uncle Sam’s loans were the backbone of a sprawling arms trade, according to the ATF.
ATF faces intense scrutiny as the Senate considers the election of President Joe Biden as the agency’s first permanent director in six years. The endorsement from David Chipman, a former ATF agent who campaigned for stricter gun laws, unfolds against the backdrop of public fear of mass shootings and the renewed determination of the White House to prevent easy access to firearms.
In one of the most comprehensive investigations of the ATF inspection records, The Trace and USA TODAY found that the federal agency responsible for overseeing the arms industry was largely toothless and forgiving, bending back to spare idiosyncratic dealers like Uncle Sam’s – and sometimes allow guns to fall into the hands of criminals.
Arms industry lobbyists have been fighting tighter oversight for decades by making arms dealers one of the most regulated companies in the United States. The Trace and USA TODAY review found that merchants are largely immune to severe penalties and enjoy protection not available to most other industries.
Gun sellers fear Biden’s candidate for ATF will be cracked down
Reporters spent more than a year analyzing documents from nearly 2,000 arms dealer inspections that uncovered violations between 2015 and 2017. The reports showed that some traders downright misread the rules