As gun crimes mounted in Seattle during the first half of this year, one police detective toiled in the department’s evidence room to keep pace.
Det. Don Gallagher has the job of processing “crime guns," firearms seized from criminals or crime scenes, and running federal gun traces on each of those weapons.
“It gives us a big picture of where guns are coming from, where we are getting them,” said Gallagher on a recent day while running traces on a half-dozen firearms. He submitted each gun’s serial number, make and model into a federal website run by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms.
Firearms tracing is the systematic tracking of firearms recovered by police back to its manufacturer and through the sales process. Police and agents follow the trail of the gun to try to learn how it ended up in a criminal’s hands.
After record-setting gun violence in Seattle earlier this year, the KING 5 Investigators requested the results of all gun traces ordered by Seattle Police. The results were surprising.
Top of the list
A big number of crime guns have been traced to one federally licensed firearms dealer.
The dealer isn’t in Seattle and it isn’t even a gun store, but it tops the list as the dealer who shows up most often in Seattle’s gun traces.
Ben’s Loan of Renton was the source dealer for 100 crime guns recovered by SPD between 2009 and 2011. That’s nearly 5% of all crime guns police seized during that time period.
Ben's Loan is a pawnshop that’s been a federally licensed gun seller for more than 30 years.
“You don’t carry a license and be in business as long as we do if you’re not doing things the right way,” said owner Nancy Cejudo.
She says her business is very careful to follow the rules, including background checks for those they sell guns to and in providing information to agents when a gun trace request is faxed in.
“Because (it’s) guns, it’s not like a piece of jewelry or a DVD. A gun is a very critical thing and we take it very seriously,” said Cejudo. “You always hope that none of them end up in the wrong hands.”
Federal authorities say gun traces may lead to honest businesses that legal sell a high volume of firearms – like Ben’s Loan.
But Kelvin Crenshaw, Agent- in-Charge of Seattle’s ATF branch, says gun traces can also point to other types of dealers – rogue merchants who don’t care where their guns end up.
"The harm that a dealer like that causes is that those guns go into the community. Bullets have no names and anybody can pull that trigger," said Crenshaw.
Champion Arms in Kent is an example of what happens when a firearms dealer loses its way.
Federal records show 1215 firearms did not have the proper records, during ATF inspections over a ten year period.
A federal judge called these “willfull violations” because Champion Arms ignored repeated warnings about its record keeping from federal agents.
During one ATF inspection in 2009 Champion Arms admitted it lost of 58 firearms.
Assistant United State Attorney Kayla Stahman took Champion Arms to court when it appealed ATF’s revocation of its firearm’s license.
“So it was difficult for ATF to be able to track down where these weapons were going,” Stahman said. “Ultimately they need to make sure the weapons don’t fall into the hands of people who aren’t legally allowed to have them, convicted felons.”
The store manager at Champion Arms refused to speak with KING 5 about the federal case. When reached on the phone the store’s owner said only the “business is for sale.” She then hung up.
The judge ruled in favor of ATF’s decision to revoke Champion’s firearms license.
The US Attorney’s Office says Champion Arms is expected to close up shop in a matter of days.