The last time Vernon Howell’s grandmother saw him, she said his vehicle was loaded with firearms he’d picked up at a Houston gun show. All in a messiah’s day’s work.

Some are wondering, in light of the shootout at Mount Carmel, if Howell wasn’t his own traveling gun show. The Houston Chronicle, among several media sources, reports that Howell is a licensed gun dealer.

Not true, or so says the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms computer. The ATF Washington office, contacted by phone Wednesday, ran a check on the names Vernon Howell and David Koresh. It came up empty.

Licensed gun dealer, true or false? Judging by the lax enforcement of federal laws, the Branch Davidians would have missed a trick if they did not have a federal license to sell guns.

What does it take to become an ATF-licensed gun dealer? Almost nothing: an address and $30 for a three-year permit. Ex-felons need not apply. But an ex-felon can lie, playing the odds that the ATF won’t check on the veracity of his alias. A person can use a phony business name to achieve the same end. No fingerprints required. No Social Security number. The license is yours in 45 days.

The kitchen dealers

Over a quarter-million Americans have federal gun dealers’ licenses, said Josh Sugarman, executive director of the Violence Policy Center. Yet, there are only about 40,000 storefront gun stores in America, not including pawn shops.

That means that more than 80 percent of licensees are not retail dealers as most perceive them. They are “kitchen dealers,” in Sugarman’s words.

A lot of those people ply their trade at flea markets and gun shows. A lot of them do their dealing on the street, or out of garages, at a hefty mark-up, since as dealers they can buy wholesale. It’s possible that a chunk of the nation’s drug trade is tied to gun sales. When people wonder how urban gangs get their weapons, the answer quite likely is from licensed gun dealers on the street corner.

Many states have very strict licensing requirements for gun dealers, but the lax federal requirements provide a loophole by which any old Joe can become one, and the odds are the ATF won’t be able to investigate.

Outmanned, outgunned

“ATF simply doesn’t have the manpower to check up on these people,” said Bernie Horn, director of policy and planning for Hangdun Control, Inc. “On the average,” said Horn, “they’d probably get checked up on once every 20 years.”

There’s considerable irony in Horn’s observation. It sounds hauntingly like the ATF’s own explanation of being overwhelmed — outgunned — by civilians out at the Mount Carmel compound Sunday.

This is nothing new. The problem is glaring, and it’s something President Bill Clinton could confront all by himself without staring down the gridlocked Congress.

All Clinton needs to do is have Treasury Secretary Lloyd Bentsen, ATF’s new boss, tighten the permit process for gun dealers: require fingerprints or a background check by local law enforcement; require that federal licenses also meet state and local gun dealer requirements.

Clinton could also pay for more inspectors, or maybe reduce the federal deficit, by charging the gun dealers more than a piddling $10 a year for a privilege that shouldn’t be awarded like carnival balloons.

“There’s no need to pass new legislation,” said Sugarman. “The ATF knows these people don’t have real businesses. ATF has created this bloated unmanageable universe of dealers. No amount of money, no amount of regulators, can do anything about it.”

In other words, either there was a federally licensed gun dealer among the Branch Davidians, or they weren’t as resourceful as advertised.

The ATF — outmanned and outgunned.

John Young’s column appears Tuesday, Thursday and Sunday.

Read the Tribune-Herald's 7-part investigative series on the inner workings of the Branch Davidians. Hours after Part 2 appeared in print, the ATF raided the group's compound.

Read the Tribune-Herald’s account of the ATF raid on the Branch Davidian compound on Feb. 28, 1993. Four ATF agents and six in the compound were killed in the gunfight.

Read the daily news accounts of the 51-day siege at the Branch Davidian compound near Elk, which began Feb. 28 and lasted until April.

April 19 and beyond: FBI agents began inserting canisters of tear gas into the Branch Davidian compound in the early morning hours. By noon, it was on fire.

Federal officials left the compound site in late May 1993. As identifications of bodies continued, questions about the survivors, the compound and the cult itself began to emerge.

As the world began to take a critical look back at the events and legal proceedings continue, the ATF's bombshell report forces a shakeup at the top after the raid gone "tragically wrong."

In 1994, the surviving Davidians went on trial in San Antonio. Over six weeks, more than 140 witnesses testified, with the verdict coming just two days prior to the anniversary of the ATF raid.

The Rodenville shootout and the 1988 trial, the end of the world in 1959 and more stories from deep in the Trib archives.