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In recent weeks I have focused on a variety of stupid gun laws. This week I want to look at an example of how application of these stupid laws has seriously harmed one individual.
Albert Kwan lost his small firearms business and his commercial real estate business along with his 25-year career in the National Guard, much of his extensive and extremely valuable firearms collection and all of his life savings. He currently works for a Christian mission program in China and owes his attorney something in excess of $400,000 – all in the name of stupid gun laws and over-zealous enforcement.
Kwan came to the attention of the FBI as they were investigating the 2001 murder of Assistant U.S. Attorney Tom Wales. Kwan’s name showed up on a shipping manifest for a company that sold a particular style of replacement barrel for Makarov pistols – an inexpensive Eastern Block pistol. The company’s sales records were sketchy, but the FBI had managed to track down about 1,700 of the over 3,600 barrels the company had sold over the previous decade.
Kwan was simply one of those customers, and like many of the others, Kwan was not interested in allowing the FBI to freely dig through his gun collection looking for a needle in a haystack without a warrant. The FBI came back to Kwan’s with a warrant and looked through his guns. They took one of his Makarovs for testing, but they also contacted the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, or ATF, to tell them about some of the other guns they had seen at Kwan’s.
The FBI was sure that Kwan had purchased two of the Makarov barrels, but Kwan insisted that he only remembered purchasing one – nearly 10 years prior. Convinced that Kwan was holding something back and might be able to lead them to a suspect, the FBI helped ATF swear out a search warrant to search Kwan’s collection for illegal firearms.
What they focused on was one M14 semi-auto rifle, a legally owned full-auto H&K machine-pistol with detachable shoulder stock, and a similar, legally owned H&K semi-auto pistol. They also confiscated a second shoulder stock for the machine-pistol.
Meanwhile the FBI arrested Kwan as a material witness and held him for 3 weeks. They announced the arrest to the media, which published information about Kwan and his “arsenal” of firearms. Kwan agreed to take a polygraph test, but the FBI said he failed the test – and released that information to the media too.
After he was finally released on the material witness charge, Kwan, who was a licensed dealer and collector of machineguns, was arrested on the grounds that the M14 the ATF had confiscated was an unregistered machinegun. They later added a charge of possession of an unregistered short-barreled rifle, or SBR.
At the trial, ATF testified that they had ground away welds and replaced most of the gun’s internal mechanism to finally get the gun to fire three rounds with a single pull of the trigger.
The jury didn’t buy the unregistered machinegun charge in light of the lengths ATF had to go to in order to get the gun to fire full-auto, and the charge was returned “not guilty.” On the question of the SBR, ATF insisted that having two shoulder stocks and two H&K pistols to which the shoulder stocks could be attached constituted possession of two SBRs. The judge blocked introduction of evidence to the contrary, and the jury returned a guilty verdict on the SBR charge.
Upon appeal the judge acknowledged that he had erred in disallowing the defense arguments about the SBR and that ATF and prosecutors had misled the court regarding standards for such a charge. The Supreme Court had previously ruled in U.S. v. Thompson Center Arms that just having parts that could be configured into a SBR did not constitute actually possessing a SBR as long as the parts were not actually put together in that configuration – especially when the parts could be otherwise assembled in a way that did not create a violation. The Court also ruled that in such ambiguous cases courts should always lean in favor of the accused, not the government.
With that acknowledgement a judge reversed Kwan’s conviction and ordered a new trial. Admitting that they could not win the case with the Thompson Center case being applied, prosecutors dropped the charges against Kwan.
Even though the charges were dropped, Kwan was never publicly exonerated, and the damage to his reputation and his businesses can not be undone. His neighbors have actively petitioned to keep him from reopening his home-based firearms business, his real estate business is gone, the National Guard is resisting his resumption of service and many of his guns have simply disappeared. And with all of that, the lawyers say that even if he had the money to pursue reparations for the devastation government agents have wreaked on his life, they do not believe he could win.
In all of this, not one gun-rights organization, legal defense fund or civil rights group has provided any substantive assistance at all. The Firearms Coalition has done what we can to provide moral support and raise awareness of Kwan’s plight, but we do not have the resources to do more than sound the alarm. The only bright spot in Albert Kwan’s case is that at least he is alive to try to put his life back together.
Other targets of ATF’s enforcement of federal gun laws have not been so lucky.
Remember that Ruby Ridge was triggered by an accusation of a shotgun barrel that was a quarter-inch too short and the Waco tragedy was triggered by an accusation of a semi-auto rifle being converted to fire automatically.
While ATF abuses have become legendary, it is to be expected that any federal agency tasked with enforcement of the current misguided and convoluted gun laws would undoubtedly follow a similar path of abuse. Bad laws make for bad enforcement, and bad enforcement destroys innocent people’s lives.