by Tanya K. Metaksa
As we mentioned in the last article (GW May15, 2011), the 1970s were a period of transition for both the Bureau of Alcohol and Firearms (ATF) and for gunowners. The 1968 Gun Control Act (GCA68) passed and the entire gun community (manufacturers, dealers, and gunowners) was learning to live within its limitations. At the same time ATF was learning its role in being not only the administrator of the law, but also its enforcer.
One of the first people to be involved in the creation of what would become ATF was a US Treasury career criminal investigator, Rex Davis. Davis had served in World War II flying 33 combat missions as a bombardier with the Eighth Air Force. After the war he got his law degree and began his career with the Treasury Department in 1949. At the time of the passage of GCA68 he was an Assistant Regional Commissioner in the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax Division. In 1970 he was appointed director of the IRS ATF division and when the ATF was separated from the IRS, he became its first director, serving until 1978 when he retired. According to the Washington Post, “Davis turned ATF into the country’s chief investigator of political terrorists and organized criminals in the booze business.”
Following the passage of GCA68, ATF needed to hire many new agents. Allegations have surfaced that it hired new agents who had little experience and were overzealous. It wasn’t long before those factors became tragically evident.
On June 7, 1971, acting on a tip from a teenage burglary suspect that there were “guns and grenades” at an apartment in Silver Spring, MD, ATF Special Agent Marcus J. Davis requested a search warrant for the apartment. Assistant US Attorney Charles Bernstein rejected Davis’ request, citing insufficient evidence for a search warrant. Davis rewrote the request giving Bernstein the suspect’s name and told him that there had been allegations of violent threats in the vicinity of Kenyon Ballew’s address. Bernstein then issued a knock-service daytime search warrant.
The raid was carried out by a task force of ATF and Montgomery County police. All the task force members were dressed in scruffy clothes to “blend in” with the neighborhood. They knocked on the back door and allegedly shouted “Federal officers with a warrant, open up.” Hearing some movement within the apartment, they took a battering ram to the door. It took them six attempts to break down the door. The two residents within, Ballew and his girlfriend, Saraluise McNeil, had both been in the shower when the attack began. He was naked and she was clad only in her underwear. Not having heard anything but the battering of his rear door, Ballew grabbed an 1847 blackpowder percussion Colt revolver while McNeil grabbed her own revolver.
The ATF agent, William H. Seals, seeing the naked man with the gun, yelled, “He’s got a gun” and fired a shot. The next officer behind Seals was County Police Officer Royce R. Hibbs who came through the door firing several shots. At that time Ballew had not fired a shot and none of the first two officers’ shots hit him.
It was only when Police Officer Louis Camillo came into the room and fired a shot at Ballew’s head that Ballew was hit. As Ballew fell, he dropped the Colt that discharged sending one bullet into the floor at an angle. Upon seeing Ballew bleeding on the floor, Saraluise McNeil became hysterical and surrendered to the police officers.
Before the ATF attack, Ballew, a former US Air Force (USAF) security policeman, had been working for the Washington Post newspaper as a pressman. He also owned a gun collection of mostly Civil War blackpowder guns.
The grenades that had triggered the search warrant were dummy grenades incapable of being discharged. No charges were ever filed by ATF or the Montgomery County police against Ballew; yet, neither agency ever apologized to Ballew or McNeil.
Ballew filed suit in federal court to no avail. The judge ruled, “the plaintiff is not entitled to recover damages for the injuries he has sustained. Judgment is therefore entered in favor of the defendant, with costs.”
This case, which was followed closely by the Washington Post, became a gunowner rallying point against the ATF during the 1970s. It was also one of the cases that Congressman John Dingell (D-MI) referred to when he called the ATF “jack-booted thugs.” This was the same Dingell who, as a member of the NRA board of directors, was later instrumental in the creation of the NRA’s lobbying arm, the Institute for Legislative Action (ILA).
The 1977 NRA revolution dramatically changed NRA’s focus. Under the leadership of Executive Vice President Harlon Carter and the new ILA Executive Director Neal Knox it became the NRA spearhead. When Knox took over the reins at ILA, one of his immediate goals was to “take on” ATF. In his first speech as ILA Executive Director he began to lay out the many problems that gunowners were experiencing as a result of overzealous enforcement of GCA68.
Much of the information that was needed to help ILA develop a case against ATF abuse came from one of Knox’s first personnel appointments. In January 1978 the position of Director of Legal Affairs became vacant and Knox appointed James J. Featherstone, a former deputy assistant Secretary of the Treasury for Enforcement. For over a year ILA worked to document a strong case against ATF’s abuse of law abiding gunowners. Knox, who had moved to Washington, DC, from Arizona where he had been part-owner and editor of Handloader and Rifle magazines, took it upon himself to personally work with Sen. Dennis DeConcini (D-AZ), the chairman of the Subcommittee on Treasury, Postal Service and General Government Committee on Appropriations. On Wednesday, July 11, 1979 a hearing was held in Room 1318 of the Everett Dirksen Office Building with Sens. DeConcini and James McClure (R-ID) present.
At the hearing Knox, accompanied by James J. Featherstone and Mike Acree, a former Commissioner of Customs, presented testimony. Knox’s testimony alleged that ATF had spent its enforcement resources concentrating on technical violations of GCA68 that were federal felonies. When ATF realized those arrests were too infrequent to justify such a large agency, ATF “justified its existence by artificial inflation of arrest statistics for federal gun law violations and crime gun seizures through entrapment schemes and other abuses.” Additionally Knox defined the three types of abuses of gunowners by ATF: dealing without a license; “straw man” sales, and enforcement of Title II of GCA68.
After Knox had finished his testimony, Sen. McClure asked Acree about his background. Acree responded that he had spent 40 years in the Customs Service, retiring in 1977 as Assistant Commissioner, Division Director. He also volunteered that he now was under contract to the NRA to deliver “an impartial, objective, unbiased analysis of a substantial number of investigative cases” concerning ATF’s enforcement of the GCA68. McClure asked, “In your examination of the kinds of cases prosecuted in these Maryland and Virginia areas that you refer to, what was your finding with respect to the kind of people that had become involved in the ATF prosecutions?”
Acree answered, “Based on my recollection of the hundreds of cases that we reviewed in the jurisdictions and points I mentioned, I would say that, conservatively, 75 to 80 percent of those cases were individuals that, in my judgment, would not have fallen into the hands of the law, so to speak, had they not been enticed, inveigled, encouraged to violate some provision of law with which I am personally satisfied they were totally unfamiliar.”
In our next part we will review the testimony of several victims who were brave enough to be witnesses at the DeConcini hearing. Their stories will show a pattern of an out-of-control agency that treats its clients as criminals, rather than as law-abiding business owners and gunowners.
Read the next installment in our archives.