Scrutiny of city gun show criticized U.S. agents, police rattled customers, organizer tells panel BY SEAN MUSSENDEN MEDIA GENERAL NEWS SERVICE Thursday, February 16, 2006 WASHINGTON -- A crackdown on illegal firearm sales at Richmond-area gun shows led to a congressional inquiry yesterday into whether federal agents trampled the rights of gun buyers. The organizer of an August gun show at Richmond Raceway Complex told a House panel that a large team of federal agents from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives and city, state and county police patrolled the two-day show, harassing law-abiding gun buyers while looking for illicit gun sales. Annette Gelles of Showmasters, the organizer, told the House Judiciary Subcommittee on Crime that agents' aggressive tactics unnerved some attendees, and the visible presence drove away other customers. Rights called impeded "They impeded people's Second Amendment rights," Gelles said after the hearing. "I think they were there trying to shut the show down. Why else would they bring that many officers? It scared away a lot of law-abiding people." After noticing that guns purchased at shows -- which, unlike store sales, do not always require a background check -- were used to commit local crimes, the ATF, Richmond and Henrico County police and Virginia State Police joined to strengthen oversight of gun-show firearm sales. Representatives of the four agencies were not invited to the hearing. Officials with the ATF, Richmond police and state police declined to comment or did not return telephone calls. Henrico police spokesman Doug Perry said, "It was a federal operation. We were only there to assist." He declined to comment further. The ATF is scheduled to present its side of the story at a hearing Feb. 28, said subcommittee chairman Rep. Howard Coble, R-N.C. "I don't want anyone to leave here thinking it's time to decommission the ATF. We will hear from them," he said. 'Straw purchases' cited ATF director Carl J. Truscott defended his agency's operations in a letter to the committee. From 2004 to 2005, four homicides in Richmond were linked to guns sold at shows, he wrote. Agents patrolled eight shows during the period, leading to more than 30 arrests for gun crimes, including lying on background check forms and "straw purchases" -- buying a gun for someone else. The size of the police presence at the shows is in question. Attendees alleged that hundreds were involved in the operation. But Truscott wrote that 24 to 50 officers and agents attended the shows. "ATF is sensitive to the rights of law-abiding citizens and has no interest in inhibiting the lawful acquisition of firearms," he wrote. James Lalime, a gun dealer from Colonial Heights who testified yesterday, said he was interrogated at length by two ATF agents because he was considering purchasing some guns. "Never in my life have I been made to feel so violated," he said. Suzanne McComas, a private investigator hired by the National Rifle Association to look into the allegations of harassment, said officers targeted minorities. "Anyone who was a minority, they picked up their trail and followed them through the show. . . . It was ridiculous," she told lawmakers. Rep. Bill Delahunt, D-Mass., told McComas that he found the racial allegations questionable. "I'm not saying that I disbelieve you, but I'm shocked that they could be that stupid. It's almost difficult to believe," he said. In some cases, officers followed gun buyers from the show or went to their homes to confirm addresses listed on background check forms, the witnesses said. In his letter to the committee, Truscott defended "residence checks" as "an important and useful tool to ensure the lawfulness of firearms transactions and to prevent straw purchases." Rep. Robert C. Scott of Virginia's 3rd District, the top Democrat on the subcommittee, said he would like to change the law that allows some purchases without background checks. Until that happens, Scott said, he wants to make sure existing laws are properly enforced. "If people are law-abiding citizens, they should have the right to conduct lawful activities," he said. Peter Hamm, a spokesman for the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence, said he is worried Congress will use the incident to restrict enforcement activities, which he said work. Pro-gun lobby groups are trying to use the incident to get the ATF off their back, he said. "It's obvious that the gun-show lobby doesn't want this [arrest] information to get out, because it strengthens the argument for closing the gun-show loophole," he said.