A couple makes an inconspicuous entrance to the fluorescent lit, gun walled, Mickalis Pawn Shop in Summerville. The middle-aged pair are professionally dressed — the bird sports an olive green business suit and the dame is dressed in a white blouse and skirt. The skirt tells the clerk she is looking for a handgun. She and her companion settle down at the bar stools flanking the glass gun cases. The suit visited the gun shop previously that day. He had presented the required South Carolina driver's license and perused a few of the guns. Looking bored, the dame lets her friend do most of the talking, she asks a few disinterested questions and handles the guns the dealer suggests might interest her. Finding a pistol she likes, she fills out the background check paperwork required to complete the sale. She pays for the gun and the pair leave the shop without incident.
A month after the gun sale, Larry Mickalis, owner of the pawnshop, was served with papers informing him of a lawsuit being brought against him by the city of New York. The couple who made the gun purchase on April 20 were private investigators — employees of the James Mintz Group — who had been hired by the City of New York to carry out a two-month sting operation, which included 60 gun dealers in five states — Georgia, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Virginia, and South Carolina. The P.I.'s were hired to pose as gun buyers and to attempt to make what are known as "straw purchases."
Straw purchases are a violation of federal law and include gun transactions in which one individual submits information for the required background check for a gun that is clearly meant to be used by someone else. Of the 60 stores that NYC had investigated, 15 were found making allegedly illegal sales. The Mickalis shop is one of the 15.
Larry Mickalis has been in the gun business for a long time — 30 years, to be exact. His father owned a gun shop, but Larry had no interest in the family business until one night, returning home from work, he was attacked by two intruders. The first bit his hand so deeply you can still see the scar. The second shot Mickalis twice.
"If I was a gun owner, I wouldn't have gotten shot twice. Now, I have a very strong conviction for selling handguns. Without the good Lord's help I would not be here today," says Mickalis who believes he was wrongly accused of the crime. "I feel that they were sent here to create a lawsuit and that I was entrapped. They sent someone in with specific intent and language to try and get one over on me."
Mickalis did not participate in the sale of the gun, but he was present when the transaction took place. "Everything that I observed was the normal course of a gun sale. I don't allow illegal sales in my store. I've shown that I've been a responsible citizen. I've shown that I've turned down dozens of sales because of my own suspicions. Nothing in that sale alarmed me."
The gun sale that took place at Mickalis's pawnshop is arguably a straw purchase because while the background check information was filled out by the dame investigator her apparent lack of interest in the sale should have tipped the salesman.
Mickalis explains that in many instances when a woman is shopping for a gun she will bring a man along to give her advice on what to purchase. When watching this particular transaction, he felt that that was exactly what was taking place.
"She handled the gun, and there were no implications of illegal activity," says Mickalis.
Richard Gardiner, attorney and firearms law expert, says of the case, "Even if there were straw sales, straw man sales being made from dealers, that doesn't prove that the dealer was doing anything wrong."
The City of New York has used the straw purchase investigation as a launching point for a much larger agenda.
Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg of New York City called a news conference May 15 to announce the lawsuit. Bloomberg argued that the 15 dealers involved have sold guns that have been linked to more than 500 crimes in New York City from 1994 to 2001.
"Our suit offers clear and compelling evidence that guns sold by these dealers are used in crimes by people ineligible to own a gun far more frequently than guns from other dealers," says Bloomberg. "In other words, these dealers are the worst of the worst."
The City claims that 49 of the guns sold by the Summerville shop — over the course of its 30 years of business — have been linked to crimes in New York City. As a result, the lawsuit is seeking monetary damages from the dealers, as well as the appointment of a special master to monitor their sales. New York officials also indicated that they may ask the court to shut the gun businesses down.
Of Mayor Bloomberg's comments, Mickalis says, "I don't like being called a rogue gun dealer. He shouldn't have done that. He should have gotten his facts straight. You can't go above and beyond the law. He doesn't understand this business and what's taking place."
The City of New York used federal trace data to pinpoint shops that sold guns used in New York City crimes. Gun shops with large numbers of traces connected to their guns made the list for the investigation. Mickalis argues that the way the stores were targeted was based on shifty information and a misunderstanding of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms' (ATF) trace system.
Trace data is obtained by noting the serial number on a gun, then forwarding it to the ATF. The ATF contacts the manufacturer, who identifies the wholesaler that bought the firearm. The wholesaler then refers the ATF to the retail dealer who, using the bound-book, identifies the original retail purchaser.
Traces are done on guns for a variety of reasons. Mickalis explains, "You may be pulled over for speeding. If you have a gun in the car, the police officer may run a trace on it. It doesn't mean that a crime has been committed. Traces are just a normal part of this business."
Firearm expert Gardiner agrees, "There's no evidence from tracing that dealers are selling guns unlawfully. The trace couldn't indicate that and, in fact, doesn't indicate that."
As "the oldest gun shop in five counties," Mickalis says it makes sense that he would have the most traces. "New York did not investigate their facts completely, and they have used deception to create a lawsuit," he says.
Others agree with Mickalis and Gardiner. In addition to expressing concerns about venue and jurisdictional issues, Professor Miller Shealy from the Charleston School of Law believes, "It is laudable what they are doing, but it is a political issue and New York City is reaching."
The Smooth Talk
Be that as it may, the New York City mayor's reach is far and wide. Bloomberg has been very outspoken on gun trafficking and has gone to great lengths to draw national attention to the issue. Most recently, Bloomberg announced a coalition of 37 mayors from across the country who have vowed to fight illegal guns. Our own Mayor Riley has signed on as a member of the coalition.
Bloomberg has also begun pursuing lawsuits against gun manufacturers — similar to suits filed against tobacco companies in the recent past — and he has been lobbying Congress to stop passing what he calls "god-awful bills." One bill in particular — HR 5005 — has received undivided attention from Mayor Bloomberg.
HR 5005, the Firearms Corrections and Improvements Act, is a bill that was introduced in Congress on March 16, co-sponsored by two South Carolina representatives — District 2 Rep. Joe Wilson and District 3 Rep. Gresham Barrett — that lifts sale and trace restrictions currently placed on handguns. Bloomberg's two-month sting investigation was launched immediately after its introduction, and on March 28, Bloomberg testified to the House Judiciary Subcommittee on Crime and Terrorism and Homeland Security to rally support against the bill.
In his testimony, Bloomberg asserts that HR 5005 would "forbid the use of trace data in civil and administrative proceedings, and make it more difficult to bring civil suits against rogue dealers, and far more difficult to bring administrative actions to revoke their licenses." The civil suits and administrative actions he refers to are exactly like those Larry Mickalis is now engaged in as a result of Bloomberg's investigation.
Bloomberg also insisted that HR 5005 would make sharing trace information between states illegal, saying, "a detective who shares ATF trace information with another state government for use against a rogue gun dealer would be committing a federal felony." In other words, according to Bloomberg, if an NYPD detective — or private investigator — wanted to tell a government official in, oh maybe, South Carolina, about a problem gun dealer, it would be illegal.
While his objections may be valid, connecting dots between Bloomberg's political wranglings surrounding HR 5005 and the city's sting investigation have some smelling a rat — a big New York rat.
In his own testimony to Congress, attorney Gardiner had a different take on the gun legislation. Gardiner says, "Congress requires firearms licensees to maintain records and to comply with trace requests for the purpose of gathering evidence to solve crimes, not to produce statistical evidence for lawsuits — such as New York City's — which blame the industry for the actions of criminals."
Gardiner believes that the trace information restrictions in HR 5005 are necessary because a gun owner's privacy and confidentiality are at stake when trace information is available to any old Tom, Dick, or Bloomberg. "The language in HR 5005 allows access to this data for legitimate law enforcement investigations. Law enforcement agencies and organizations have supported restrictions to protect confidential information about agents, informants, and investigative targets who may be identified in these records."
The Pigeon Drop
Also raising eyebrows are the jurisdictional boundaries broached by the sting. New York City stepped into a law enforcement arena traditionally controlled by federal law enforcement.
John Feinblatt, criminal justice director of the New York mayor's office, said that the city took care to structure the investigation in a way that complied with all the federal rules, but a deal with the ATF was struck only after the May 16 news conference announcing the city's findings.
William G. McMahon, special agent in charge of the New York ATF field division, had a come-to-Jesus with Feinblatt on May 23 and only then issued a statement saying, "An agreement was reached where the city would work closely with ATF."
Going over ATF's head is another part of Mickalis's protest against the NYC investigation. Mickalis claims, "Law enforcement agencies have respect for my business. If I pick up the phone and call an ATF agent they act on what they are called upon to do. I have complete access to them and I have called them on suspicious sales before this came out."
Flavoring the pot, Mickalis adds that in the two weeks prior to the April 20 gun sale, he turned away a number of suspicious gun buyers he believes were trying to conduct straw purchases. He is convinced that these individuals were other Mintz Group private dicks attempting to catch him in an illegal sale. Mickalis reported these incidents to ATF prior to April 20.
Earl Woodam, public relations director for the ATF's southeast division, would not confirm or deny this report. He indicated that the ATF would not discuss any matters that were currently under litigation.
"My record stands for itself," says Mickalis. "I have never been under investigation, I have worked hand-in-hand on other sting investigations, and I believe that I was repeatedly a target in this investigation out of retribution for shutting them down so many times."
On January 7, 2001, a 12-year-old boy playing with a .22-caliber semiautomatic accidentally shot his 7-year-old-sister in the chest. The gun was allegedly purchased from Mickalis Pawn Shop. The child's mother, Ziola White, was charged with criminal possession of a weapon and endangering the welfare of a child. The boy was not charged because the shooting was an accident. Now, the City of New York is holding Larry Mickalis responsible, saying, "Not all government officials are willing to look the other way."
The .22-caliber involved in the New York City shooting was not purchased from the Mickalis Pawn Shop by White. The path that brought the gun to Ziola White's dresser drawer, and her son's 12-year-old hands, is anyone's guess.
"I am as much concerned with the violent crime in New York as Bloomberg is," says Mickalis. "I just don't think he is taking the proper channels to solve the problem. Stolen handguns are the vast majority of the guns used in crime. Handguns do carry with them a certain amount of moral responsibility. I take that seriously. I don't put guns into the hands of criminals. Tougher laws should be enacted against those caught committing crimes with guns."
According to Bloomberg, "about one percent of all gun dealers account for almost 60 percent of all crime guns nationwide." He has vowed to continue to use "every means at our disposal" to rid the country of what he has termed, "a scourge on our society."