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FBI OVERBOARD ON SUSPICIOUS CUSTOMER WARNING?

Friday, May 27, 2011

Since the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives is responsible for enforcing federal gun laws, dealers and other federal firearm licensees typically contact that agency (or state or local police) when they encounter suspicious customers. So, it raised eyebrows when the FBI began circulating flyers in gun shops and ranges, encouraging owners of those businesses to report suspicious customers to “your local Joint Terrorism Task Force” instead.  The flyers first appeared in Connecticut, with a revised version appearing more recently in Utah.

The two versions of the flyers we have seen, both titled “Communities Against Terrorism: Potential Indicators of Terrorist Activities Related to Gun Shops and Gun Ranges,” list a number of things that would cause anyone to be suspicious. These include use of fake IDs, altered appearances, making radical or anti-American comments, practicing kidnapping scenarios at a range, referring to "jihad training manuals," and attempting to circumvent gun laws.

On the other hand, the flyers also list a number of things that are not inherently suspicious at all, such as paying in cash rather than with a credit card, traveling a significant distance to visit a range, possessing little knowledge about a product purchased, being interested in the use of concealed weapons, and buying bulk quantities of "weatherproofed ammunition."

As we live in an era of profound sensitivity for people’s feelings, the flyers discourage dealers and ranges from jumping to conclusions when someone doesn’t fit the mold of their average customers. Perhaps due to a past FBI Statement, that “just because someone’s speech, actions, beliefs, appearance, or way of life is different, it does not mean that he or she is suspicious.”

But, the flyers also encourage dealers and ranges to report the names of customers who engage in any single activity that the flyers list. “Some of the activities, taken individually, could be innocent,” the flyers say, but they “must be examined by law enforcement professionals in a larger context to determine whether there is a basis to investigate.”

On that point, we hope good judgment will prevail.

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