News & Politics

Heading to a Gun Show? The Government Is Watching

New documents obtained by the Wall Street Journal show that police offices are scanning license plates at gun shows at the behest of the federal government.

Emails reviewed by The Wall Street Journal show agents with the Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency crafted a plan in 2010 to use license-plate readers—devices that record the plate numbers of all passing cars—at gun shows in Southern California, including one in Del Mar, not far from the Mexican border.

I’ve been to the Del Mar gun show and there aren’t many guns there. I used to call it the “Knives and Beef Jerky” show (after all, we are talking about California).

Agents are using the information they gather from gun shows in hopes of locating gun-smugglers, according to WSJ sources. Does this seem like an invasion of privacy to you? Some people think so, while law enforcement says it is necessary to track illegal activity. I don’t agree. There are all kinds of things law enforcement can do to track illegal activity, but they are restricted from doing when they violate citizens’ civil liberties.

Have their been any arrests made as a result of tracking gun show attendees? The WSJ says there is no indication of “any arrests or investigative leads.”

This isn’t the first time the public has learned about sketchy surveillance at gun show.

Last year, the Journal reported that the Drug Enforcement Administration had considered conducting such surveillance at gun shows, but scrapped the plans for unclear reasons. Emails and interviews with law-enforcement officials show ICE went ahead with the strategy in 2010, relying on local police to do so.

Gun Owners of America’s Erich Pratt says, “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.”

An ICE spokeswoman confirmed that agents in San Diego conducted some kind of operation at the Del Mar gun show. “In conducting these operations, HSI San Diego and its partners make every effort to utilize all investigative methods for planning purposes,” she said. “As for specific methods, HSI San Diego does not comment.”

License plate readers are used for many things by law enforcement officers such as searching for fugitives, missing children, and, the WSJ points out, the man who allegedly set off a bomb in NYC.

So what happens to the data after it is collected? “A single camera can record thousands of vehicle plates an hour, capturing the data at high speeds, in thick traffic and in other situations that the human eye cannot.”

The WSJ obtained documents from a FOIA request that showed agents targeted the Crossroads of the West Gun Show in Del Mar, CA, in 2010.

More than half of the pages provided by the agency were completely redacted, or blacked out; others have large sections redacted, apparently to keep secret how the surveillance was undertaken.

In an email titled “Request for Assistance,” an ICE investigator wrote, “We would like to see if you can support an outbound guns/ammo operation on (redacted) at the Crossroads (Del Mar) Gun Show. We would like to deploy license plate readers.” The email, whose sender and recipient are redacted, includes a large section of operational details that are also redacted.

The law-enforcement officials with knowledge of the operation confirmed ICE got local police officers to drive around the parking lot at the gun show and use their license-plate readers to collect all of the cars’ information. A spokeswoman for the San Diego County Sheriff’s Office declined to comment on whether the department took part in the activity.

The owner of the Crossroads gun show was not happy to learn about the data collection of show attendees.

“It’s obviously intrusive and an activity that hasn’t proven to have any legitimate law-enforcement purpose,” said Mr. Templeton. “I think my customers would be resentful of having been the target of that kind of surveillance.”

Other emails show ICE agents planned to keep scanning license plates at other gun shows in Southern California, though agency officials said they couldn’t confirm whether they had done so.

A June 30, 2010, email from an ICE agent lists a series of gun shows that summer, including ones in nearby Ontario and Costa Mesa, noting that “the last (only) one worked out pretty well, so I’d like to send two or three to that one as well.”

In reply, an unidentified agent wrote, “I am good to go on all of them.”

What if the American people are not “good to go” on your snooping?