No Gun Owner is Safe

Even Decorated FBI Agent Falls Victim to Overzealous Anti-Gun DOJ

           John Shipley was a decorated FBI agent, former Army helicopter pilot, and a firearms enthusiast.  He enjoyed collecting and shooting the most advanced firearms available and testing their limits and capabilities, as well as his own, at many of the top training programs in the country.  He enjoyed cruising the internet auction sites and forums looking for deals, finding the guns he wanted to test, and selling off the ones he was finished with.  In 2007 Shipley purchased a .50 BMG Barrett.  A short time later, a local Sheriff’s Deputy who was a casual acquaintance offered him more than he had paid for the rifle and Shipley agreed to sell it (knowing that he could replace or upgrade the rifle with the proceeds from the sale).  The deputy later consigned the gun at a local gun shop and the shop owner hooked him up with a potential buyer.  The deal was made and the transaction completed in the parking lot – off the books of the gun shop.  The buyer was a Mexican national who held a Texas driver’s license with a Mexico address.  The Sheriff’s deputy kept a record of the sale which included the buyer’s driver’s license information.  The gun was later found in a house in Mexico where Mexican police engaged in a shootout with suspected drug gang members.  The gun was not used in the shootout, nor was it involved in any other crime beyond being illegally possessed in Mexico, but it brought ATF agents around to John Shipley.

Though Shipley’s sale of the gun was legal, and though he knew nothing about the sale to the Mexican national, a detailed investigation of Shipley’s firearms transactions was initiated.  It eventually came to light that the Mexican was already a known smuggler under ATF surveillance at the time he purchased the Barrett from the deputy.  It is apparent that ATF directed the dealer to arrange the transaction, and then allowed the gun to walk.  That gunwalking probably explains why the ATF didn’t include the Barrett in their indictment against the smuggler.  They didn’t want their gunwalking activities being exposed in court.

In the end, but John Shipley was arrested and charged with dealing in firearms without a license, causing a firearms dealer to maintain false records, and lying to a federal officer.  He was subsequently tried and convicted on all counts.

An examination of the Shipley case suggests that the jury actually convicted him of committing straw purchases, even though that was not what he was charged with.  The law does not require a license for “a person who makes occasional sales, exchanges, or purchases of firearms for the enhancement of a personal collection or for a hobby, or who sells all or part of his personal collection of firearms.”

Anyone who’s been involved in firearms for long knows that it’s extremely common for an active firearms enthusiast to buy and sell dozens of guns over the course of a year.  Sometimes selling last year’s model to buy this year’s model.  Sometimes buying just because he found a great deal, or liquidating several guns from his collection in order to pay for that long-sought after special gun they’ve been looking for and finally found.  The key is that their buying and selling isn’t for livelihood or profit, but is a hobby that channels proceeds right back into the hobby.  It’s unusual for ATF to bring charges of “engaging in the business without a license” against anyone who isn’t practically running a full-time gun store at gun shows and swap-meets.  For them to bring charges against Shipley – a decorated FBI Agent – for selling a total of 66 firearms over 5 years, with 24 being the most sold in any single year, is pretty suspicious.  Shipley did turn around some of those guns rather quickly, but all of the money from the transactions went back into his collection, which never exceeded about 45 guns, many of those were  family heirlooms passed down from Shipley’s grandfather.

The case goes from suspicious to outrageous when you look at the lengths investigators and prosecutors went to in order to secure a conviction.  Shipley was charged with dealing without a license, but the prosecution focused on violence in Mexico and the one gun Shipley had sold that was found south of the border.  They showed pictures of dead bodies and seized weapons caches – including grenades and machineguns – bodies and weapons which had nothing whatsoever to do with Shipley.

After examining the case, I can’t find anything Shipley did that is not common practice among shooters and collectors.  I’ve never seen someone accused of making straw purchases

The charge of lying to a federal agent was based on the fact that Shipley only turned over those of his records that he thought the agent wanted, but the agent insisted that he asked Shipley for all of his records. Shipley maintains that he turned over everything he thought was requested

A search warrant was issued based on false information.  The charge of lying to a federal agent was based on that agent’s assertion that he asked Shipley for all of his transaction records, not just the select records Shipley actually provided. Shipley says the agent asked for his records of local sales only, and he provided the rest of the records when they were requested.  Of course, he had no legal requirement to maintain any records at all. 

Charging Shipley with causing an FFL to maintain false records rather than charging him with making straw purchases and lying on the 4473, was obviously because it’s easier to convince a jury that records are incorrect than it is to convince them that a decorated federal agent knowingly and intentionally lied.  The records say the gun was purchased by, and for John Shipley, but the gun is in someone else’s safe, so the records are wrong.  That leaves it to Shipley to get the jury to understand that him selling the gun, even after owning it for only a short time, is legal and normal, and that the records wouldn’t ever be changed.  Even so, in one of the three false records counts, the gun in question was still in Shipley’s possession at the time of his arrest and no money had ever changed hands. 

There is no indication that John Shipley ever sold a gun to anyone who could not have purchased the same gun at any gun shop in the state.  While one individual who purchased a gun from Shipley did claim that Shipley “took orders” to buy certain guns for him, that witness’s veracity is questionable and, even then, the man was not a felon or otherwise prohibited from purchasing a firearm.

Probably the most troubling aspect of this case to me is the lack of public support for Shipley from his fellow federal agents.  I have seen police go to criminal lengths to cover for a fellow officer who clearly crossed the line.  It seems odd that federal law enforcement officers and organizations stood silently by as one of their own was so apparently railroaded.  Even the NRA, notorious for staying away from criminal cases, contributed to Shipley’s defense, but little or nothing came formally from federal law enforcement support organizations.

This case isn’t closed yet.  John Shipley has appealed the case to the Federal Appeals Court for the 5th Circuit.  It is hoped that the court will hear it soon.  Meanwhile, Shipley remains in federal prison.  With good behavior, he could be released to a halfway house soon though.  Still, his life has been devastated.  His career is gone.  He has been permanently debarred pursuit of his passion for firearms, and his gun collection, including those passed down from his grandfather, is probably lost forever.  Worse yet, even if the 5th Circuit agrees with Shipley’s challenges to his conviction, their most likely action would be to remand the case back to the lower courts for a new trial.  In such a case, it would be likely that the prosecutor would simply choose not to pursue the case “at this time,” leaving Shipley in limbo, not convicted, but not exonerated.  In that case there is little hope of counter suits or recovery of property.  (See the sad case of Albert Kwan)  But the personal tragedy this case represents for the Shipley family is minor compared to the valid concerns the case raises for the corruption, vindictiveness, and anti-gun bigotry that is apparent in our criminal “justice” system.

I will continue to track this case along with my friend and colleague David Codrea, the National Gun Rights Examiner, who helped to bring it to my attention and who has done yeoman’s service getting the details of the case out to the public.  Those interested in helping John Shipley can find information at a site set up by his family at; http://www.shipleylegalfund.com.

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