Robert Lewis III never meant for any of the assault rifles he assembles in his Northwest Dallas home to wind up hidden in a pickup truck bound for Mexico. He considers his gun-making more hobby than profession, though he did reportedly sell some to a guy down in Houston from time to time for a little extra spending money.
Yet, despite Lewis' best intentions, customs agents in Hidalgo in January 2011 discovered a cache of 15 assault rifles stashed in the fuel tank of a southbound truck belonging to 37-year-old Edwardo Ibarra. Components from two of the weapons were traced back to Lewis, who, records showed, had purchased them from JP-TEN Sports in Farmers Branch.
The discovery intrigued the ATF, which two months later began investigating Lewis for trafficking firearms. They probably suspected that they were on the trail of some sophisticated cartel-connected gunrunner who had finally slipped up. What they found instead was a guileless Army vet running a very small-scale, very homespun gun operation out of a house belonging to his parents.
Lewis, according to court documents, would order assault rifle components, a couple of dozen at a time, from suppliers all over the country using his dad's credit card and have them shipped to JP-TEN Sports, where he would pick them up. That's where the ATF detained him on July 16 as he picked up a shipment of AK-style firearms receivers he'd ordered online. This was exactly two weeks after Lewis and his son -- Robert Lewis IV, of course -- had been turned away while trying to buy a rifle because the owner suspected them of being straw purchasers.
He didn't try to deny anything. ATF Special Agent Kevin Mack, who was working the case, found him to be forthcoming, even friendly. When Mack revealed that he had a warrant to search Lewis' Cromwell Drive house, Lewis volunteered his truck, letting Mack drive.
"So are you the case agent?" Lewis asked as they pulled away from the gun store. "Tell me what this is about."
Mack explained that it had come to the ATF's attention that he was manufacturing firearms without a license, which is illegal.
Lewis chewed on this for a moment. He knew he technically needed a license to make guns. Friends had advised that he get one from time to time over the past 20 years, but he'd never gotten around to it. Then, he tried to tug a bit on Mack's heart strings.
Lewis explained that he is an unemployed Army veteran whose only real income comes in the form of disability benefits from the VA for the grenade shrapnel embedded in his back and legs, among other wounds. He's going back to college right now, which is mostly covered by the VA, but there are expenses that he sometimes needs to cover. Hence the occasional gun sales. He really wasn't sure why the ATF was making such a big deal out of it.
"You can just give me the Form 7 [federal firearms manufacturers application], and we are done," he said. "You wouldn't even have to do all this."
They drove a bit further, and Lewis began to wonder: Was the ATF about to take away his "toys"?
Mack explained that his search warrant was for the seizure of both weapons and weapons components so, in a word, yes.
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"So what am I supposed to do for money?" Lewis asked.
"Get a license and you can build and deal all you want," Mack told him. "You just have to follow the rules."
That'll be tough, especially since Lewis will have to start from scratch. Agents took 39 guns from Lewis' home, along with various assault rifle components, gun-making equipment and 25,000 rounds of ammunition, which is a tremendous loss for an operation as modest as Lewis'. His pleas that it was merely a hobby and that the gun sales really just covered the manufacturing costs failed to sway the agents. Same with the pleas of his father, who showed up while the ATF was searching the house. "So you are gonna take away his livelihood?" the father asked. "Of course you are gonna find guns and all that. Is that illegal?"
Yes, at least so long as the firearms are being sold and allegedly trafficked into Mexico. The U.S. Attorneys Office filed a civil lawsuit on Monday seeking to take possession of the property for good.