EXCLUSIVE: ATF Gains Financial Information on Potential Gun Buyers for Warrantless Tracking, Documents Show

EXCLUSIVE: ATF Gains Financial Information on Potential Gun Buyers for Warrantless Tracking, Documents Show
A person holds a gun in a file image. (Scott Olson/Getty Images)
Emily Miller

The federal government has been using data on Americans’ finances and past gun purchases to conduct warrantless tracking and to deny citizens’ Second Amendment rights. Agents from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) told the FBI that income estimates are a reason to monitor people’s firearms purchases.

Erich Pratt, senior vice president of Gun Owners of America (GOA), told The Epoch Times that the ATF’s “monitoring innocent people” is a serious problem.

“Congress needs to rein in this rogue agency by either exercising oversight over it or abolishing the unconstitutional agency altogether,” he said.

These revelations come from new documents obtained by The Epoch Times through a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) lawsuit. The latest production from the FOIA has hundreds of pages—many redacted—that show ATF agents requesting warrantless surveillance by the FBI for reasons such as low salaries, past firearm purchases, and sending “bizarre” messages.

The Epoch Times exclusively reported in January about the FBI’s secret monitoring of people through the National Instant Criminal Background Check System (NICS) for gun purchases for mere “potential violations of law.”

Too Poor to Buy Guns

According to the documents, a man in Arizona was subjected to NICS daily monitoring because he has a “reported income” of only $2,839.

“In my experience, someone with this amount of income would not be able to afford 20 firearms,” the ATF agent wrote.

An Asian man in Texas was added to the background check system because the ATF said he has “no work history,” which “could possibly indicate” that he is “straw purchasing.”

A special agent in Kansas emailed ATF’s liaison at the NICS to flag two purchasers for “potential trafficking.” The agent wrote, “My targets are purchasing an abundance of firearms without a license or known financial means to obtain the product.”

The FBI’s NICS expert instructed the agent in Kansas about what to include to ensure approval for tracking the suspects.

“I would suggest covering the lack of income versus expenditures and also if there is substantial make/model duplication,” the expert wrote. The ATF agent emailed back each man’s income, acquired by the Kansas Department of Labor.

All the cases in the documents are related to the ATF investigating the dealing of firearms without a license and straw purchasing, which is buying guns for people who are prohibited from owning a firearm.

Tracking Income

Gun rights activists say federal law enforcement is missing the mark.

“The poor usually live in areas with the most crime and thus have a strong need to arm themselves heavily,” Pratt said. “So targeting the indigent is simply another avenue for gun-grabbers to implement a backdoor gun ban.”

ATF headquarters won’t disclose how it acquired the other suspects’ incomes, employment information, and past gun purchases found in the FOIA forms.

“We are unable to discuss specific techniques utilized in criminal investigations,” ATF spokesperson Erik Longnecker told The Epoch Times. “ATF utilizes a multitude of legal means in our criminal investigations to protect our communities from violent gun crime.”

Longnecker referred The Epoch Times to the National Tracing Center website for information about “several overt programs such as multiple sales and demand letters that can be helpful in identifying illegal firearms trafficking.”

Buying Too Many Guns

A black man in Florida was monitored daily by the FBI for at least 90 days in 2020 because an ATF agent wrote, “Based on my training and experience, I have not seen a legal firearms purchaser purchase approximately 30 firearms in a 120-day window for their personal collection.”

Licensed firearms dealers must report to ATF the sale of two or more handguns to the same purchaser within five consecutive business days. However, there is no federal law that limits the number of guns a person can buy.

“Some agent just decided, ‘That is enough Second Amendment for you this year,’” Robert Olson, the attorney who filed the FOIA lawsuit for the gun owners’ group, told The Epoch Times.

Buying and Selling Guns

A Wisconsin man was put under surveillance in 2020 because an ATF agent saw text messages related to buying and selling guns and suspected dealing without a license. The agent said the man bought guns from the website Gunbroker.com, transferred them through a local gun store, and then resold the firearms “using email, text messaging, and the website Armslist.com.”

There is more redacted text than visible information on the form, but it doesn’t disclose the number of guns the suspect bought and sold.

“If you only make occasional sales of firearms from your personal collection, you do not need to be licensed,” the ATF says in an online guide. It also states that ”you will need a license if you repetitively buy and sell firearms with the principal motive of making a profit.”

Too Many Gun Parts

In the secret documents, an ATF agent asked the FBI to flag a man in Arizona suspected of dealing gun parts.

“In my experience, it is common for people to purchase large number of AR-15 style lower receivers, build them into rifles, and sell the rifles for profit,” the agent wrote to get the suspect put into NICS.

A “lower receiver” is the base part of an AR-style rifle that has a serial number on it. It can’t fire without a barrel, trigger, and other parts added to it.

“It is common for people to buy several lower receivers and build them into finished guns. If it’s your hobby, that is not sufficient to prove you are illegally dealing firearms,“ Olson said. ”How does the agent distinguish between the Second Amendment enthusiast and the criminals?”

‘Bizarre’ Messages

A Missouri man was put into NICS after an ATF agent emailed, “[A] U.S. Attorney’s Office asked that we monitor his activity due to recent threats and bizarre messages he has been leaving.”

The agent wrote that the man “was recently released from BOP [Federal Bureau of Prisons] and has begun making threats toward the U.S. Attorney’s Office, federal judge, and ATF case agent.” The completed form doesn’t indicate the man has committed a felony, which would mean he would be in the NICS and prevented from buying a gun at the point of sale.

“Sending bizarre messages is not something that makes you lose your Second Amendment rights,“ Olson said. “He sounds like a bad guy, but it’s not connected to firearms. That’s a huge misuse of the background check process.”

Anonymous Tips

The ATF’s law enforcement role is to investigate when a prohibited person completes a 4473 gun background check, and the NICS denies the purchase. In one case in the files, the ATF appears—based on an anonymous tip—to have a woman tracked before an investigation has been done.

Documents show that a Hispanic woman in Texas was put into the NICS because an agent got an “iTip provided by an anonymous person” who related that she had “purchased 10 firearms in the last two weeks.”

The agent wrote that the investigation was incomplete because it didn’t have the background check forms from the dealer (“4473s”) or video footage from the store.

ATF and FBI Unbowed

There are no instances of the FBI denying any ATF request to put a person under warrantless surveillance in all of the documents released so far. Moreover, there are no documents showing that the monitoring periods ended. As previously reported, the FBI told the ATF that it will renew the NICS flags of 30 to 120 days and limitless times if requested.

“It’s time for Congress to repeal the NICS check. Given that more than 95 percent of the initial stops are for mistaken identity, it is clear that NICS is not keeping guns out of criminals’ hands,” GOA’s Pratt said.

The ATF spokesperson declined to say whether the monitoring program with the FBI is ongoing. The FBI didn’t respond to a request for comment.

Emily Miller is an award-winning investigative journalist and author in Washington, D.C. Her newsletter "Emily Posts News" gives readers original, exclusive reporting and insider analysis.
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