Gun sale sting nets 373 weapons, 49 suspects

Federal authorities and the Atlanta Police bought 373 guns from criminals in a sting operation based in a fake storefront in southwest Atlanta.

The cops also picked up some illegal drugs and stolen merchandise along the way while running “ATL Blaze” -- which purported to be a smoke shop on Campbellton Road but actually was a front for the operation run by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives. Authorities announced the results on Wednesday.

Undercover agents put out word that the owners of the business were interested in buying guns as well as drugs and stolen goods and ended up with weapons ranging from revolvers and scoped rifles to sawed-off shotguns and assault weapons.

Authorities said 49 people have been indicted on various federal and state charges: conspiracy to unlawfully deal in firearms, theft by receiving stolen property, drug trafficking and, the most common, possession of a firearm by a convicted felon. Twenty-seven had been arrested by Wednesday.

“We were surprised at the quality of the weapons that were being seized,” Atlanta Police Chief George Turner said. “I believe our streets are safer today.”

He said Atlanta police seized 1,700 weapons in all of 2010. He said many of the guns bought during the operation were stolen from cars, which he noted are poor places to store a weapon.

ATF Assistant Special Agent in Charge Jeffrey Pearce said the seven-month sting cost about $400,000. He did not know how much was spent buying weapons.

Pearce said the operation was shut down in part because six of the suspects were planning to rob some drug dealers of their cocaine. They are charged in federal court with conspiring to “obstruct, delay and affect commerce... by robbery.” Their weapons of choice were a .30-30 Marlin rifle, a .40-caliber Keltec pistol and a .40 caliber Smith and Wesson pistol.

Others are charged with almost running a boutique in weapons. William “Dee” McRae, Darius “Willie” Webb and Vincent “Chris” Smith were indicted on federal charges of dealing firearms without a license in transactions involving 51 weapons, mostly pistols but also rifles and shotguns. They were also indicted on federal drug charges, and Smith faces state charges of cocaine trafficking and receiving stolen property.

Fulton County District Attorney Paul Howard said that home burglaries were another major source of weapons. His office runs a burglary task force.

“This entire operation was innovative, it was exciting but most of all it was effective,” he said.