ATF pursuit of decorated American soldier about headlines, not justice

The ATF wants to imprison a decorated American soldier for a series of victimless crimes, even though the federal regulations he’s accused of violating may not be constitutional, and questions about ATF’s potential involvement in the case remain unanswered.

The same federal agency that ran guns across the border into Mexico — which were used by drug cartels to murder Border Patrol Agent Brian Terry and scores of Mexican nationals — believes that retired special operations veteran Larry Vickers needs to be locked up, even though none of his weapons ended up in cartel hands.

A story published recently dissected the Justice Department’s case against Vickers, who pleaded guilty last week to a federal indictment that accused him of conspiring to illegally import machineguns and conspiring to violate U.S. sanctions against a Russian arms manufacturer.

The story showed how Vickers and two small-town chiefs of police created “sample letters” to bamboozle ATF’s Import Branch into approving some extremely esoteric weapons. It clarified that Vickers never imported AKs from the Russian arms maker, but instead corresponded with the firm, shot some promotional video and accepted a few guns, gun parts and consulting fees.

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Much has been made of Vickers’ guilty plea, but all it means is that he lacked the millions of dollars needed to mount a proper legal defense. Unlike most defendants, federal prosecutors have unlimited resources. Vickers’ case was investigated by the ATF, FBI, IRS Criminal Investigations and the Department of Homeland Security’s Office of Inspector General, after all. Most likely, he simply didn’t want to bankrupt his family.

The U.S. Attorney for the District of Maryland publicly thanked two prosecutors specifically for “their work on the Vickers guilty plea.” This was a big win for the government, because by pleading guilty, Vickers saved prosecutors from having to answer uncomfortable questions.

One of police chiefs charged with Vickers ran a one-man department in North Dakota. The other oversaw a seven-officer department. Neither department had a SWAT team or special response capability, but that didn’t stop the small-town cops from signing nearly 150 “sample letters,” requesting the importation of a wide variety of foreign small arms.

ATF’s Import Branch approved the chiefs’ requests for a FN/FAL, internally suppressed Mp5s, full-auto Glock 18s, a belt-fed 7.62mm M240 machinegun and a French Fusil d’Assaut de la Manufacture d’Armes de Saint-Étienne, or FAMAS — a select-fire 5.56mm bullpup that uses AR magazines.

While most of the firearms would make great additions to a private collection, other than the Mp5SDs, few are in use at American law enforcement agencies — any American law enforcement agency. It raises the question as to why ATF’s Import Branch approved so many of the chiefs’ unusual requests. Were they involved in the caper or simply incompetent?

Vickers faces up to five years imprisonment for violating the National Firearms Act. But now, post-Bruen, the constitutionality of the NFA could be argued. Courts are required to assess whether modern firearm regulations “are consistent with the Second Amendment’s text and historical understanding.” And finding a Founding-era statute that’s comparable with the NFA would not be easy.

Vickers military service should have been considered before his indictment was unsealed. He made it through the Q-course, selection, operator training and much more. Neither cancer nor dozens of pissed-off Panamanians could take him out, but now the Justice Department can?

Unfortunately, his background and high-profile likely did Vickers in. ATF has always sought headlines, so the higher a defendant’s profile the more ATF wants to dogtrot them in front of the media, in cuffs of course.

The sad part is that this whole debacle could have been handled with a phone call – a warning of sorts. Vickers would have respected that.

Justice will not be served by sending LAV to prison. ATF will get their headlines and a high-profile scalp, but justice will most definitely not be served.

Lee Williams is chief editor of the Second Amendment Foundation's Investigative Journalism Project. Republished with permission.

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