Gun show attendees had licence plates monitored, federal agents admit

The emails were revealed by the Wall Street Journal. © John Sommers II
Federal agents tasked local law enforcement in Southern California with recording the registrations of cars attending at least one gun show. The surveillance has angered gun enthusiasts, who called the action a violation of the Second Amendment.

Agents from the Immigration and Customs Enforcement Agency (ICE) asked local law enforcement to use plate reading technology to record information on vehicles attending the gun show in Del Mar back in 2010.

Data was then cross checked with information on vehicles which crossed the Mexican border, around 37 miles south of Del Mar, in the hope of finding gun smugglers, according to the Wall Street Journal (WSJ).

ICE confirmed to WSJ that the activity took place and resulted in no investigations or arrests. The annual gun show at Del Mar, which attracts 9,000 people, is the only show where it was planned to take place, according to the emails seen by the WSJ.

The organiser of the show, Bob Templeton, called the action an “intrusion” and said his customers would “be resentful of having been the target of that kind of surveillance.”

No other shows are known to have been targeted, with an email from federal agents dated June 2010 enquiring about repeating the exercise in the future.

The developer of the plate reading technology told the WSJ that the information gathering was an “abuse of technology” and that policies needed to be established for license-plate readers.

Jay Stanley, a lawyer from the American Civil Liberties Union, said the collection of data was taking two legal activities, crossing the border and purchasing guns, and then making people “inherently suspicious” as “those two activities in concert fit somebody’s idea of a crime.”

Erich Pratt, executive director of Gun Owners of America, said that the surveillance was a violation of federal law. “Information on law-abiding gun owners ends up getting recorded, stored, and registered, which is a violation of the 1986 Firearm Owners Protection Act and of the Second Amendment,” he said.

The US government is banned from creating records on gun buyers, except temporarily when completing background checks.

Unlike licensed dealers, private dealers at gun shows are not required to perform background checks on customers in most states, in what is called the “gun show loophole”. It is not known how many private dealers, defined as a seller who does not rely on gun sales for their primary source of income, are operating in the US.

In the US in 2015 13,286 people were killed by firearms, with another 26,819 injured (excluding suicide), according to the Gun Violence Archive.