On February 18, federal prosecutors announced a rare indictment for unlicensed gun dealing. The U.S. Attorney’s Office in Minnesota charged Eitan Benjamin Feldman, a 28-year-old St. Paul resident, with selling firearms without a license and lying on federal background check forms. It marks the government’s first high profile case against an unlicensed gun seller since President Barack Obama unveiled an executive action in January to clarify who is “engaged in the business” of selling guns.
The indictment alleges that Feldman essentially flipped guns the way a small-time developer might flip houses. Purchasing weapons from out-of-state sellers on Armslist — a website likened to Craigslist, where anyone can post classifieds and arrange private sales — he then had them shipped to a local gun store, where he’d undergo a background check before briefly taking possession of them. Days or weeks later, Feldman would relist the guns on Armslist and sell them at a markup to in-state buyers, without putting the new buyers through background checks. Over a period of two years, ending this January, he allegedly sold 41 guns through his scheme.
Despite the timing of the prosecutor’s announcement, it does not appear that President Obama’s executive actions pushed the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) and the U.S. Attorney to pursue the case. Feldman was already on the ATF’s radar in July of last year, when agents learned that a gun he’d resold had been recovered at a crime scene. When the Bureau searched his home, Feldman claimed he was merely a collector offloading old guns. No charges were filed.
Three months later, in October, another gun Feldman had sold turned up in a criminal investigation. This time the ATF issued a written warning. Finally, in December, a month before Obama’s televised address, Feldman sold guns to undercover federal agents in a shopping mall parking lot. On Thursday, he was arrested.
Put together, Feldman’s purported actions fit the mold for an ideal case against an unlicensed gun dealer. Several of the guns he sold were used in crimes, a clear indication that his operation posed a threat to public safety. He allegedly often resold guns for a profit only days after purchasing them, which cast doubt on his explanation that he was just rotating his personal collection. And he was warned by the ATF but continued selling guns anyway.
Successful prosecutions of unlicensed sellers have been very rare. Offenders must exhibit patterns of criminal behavior that are so flagrant and well-documented that law enforcement officers and prosecutors believe that charges will stick. (According to the Minneapolis Star Tribune, Thursday’s announcement represents only the third case against an unlicensed dealer prosecuted in Minnesota in the last decade.) That’s because the law against unlicensed dealing relies on a vague definition of who is “engaged in the business” of selling guns, which rests on motive rather than a numerical threshold for number of guns sold or amount of revenue generated. Investigators and prosecutors must prove defendants intended to make a profit, and proving intent in court is difficult.
Except for when it’s not. “Wherever that line is,” U.S. Attorney Andrew Luger said at a press conference yesterday, “Mr. Feldman crossed it some time ago.”