Spread across a conference table at the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives in Phoenix are enough weapons to equip several carloads of drug runners.
Agents said Thursday they found the 42 weapons in a storage locker about 10 days ago. The guns were worth $250,000 in all: Belgian-made “FN” handguns, semiautomatic AK rifles and other pistols. They also found four olive boxes loaded with 50-caliber bullets — ammunition that’s big enough to take out an airplane.
ATF officials said gun runners typically gather large caches of weapons anonymously through “straw” purchases. They might give someone $100 to go into a gun show or a Wal-Mart and buy a few rifles at a time. They might buy guns over the Internet.
Some of those guns end up in the hands of California gangs or with coyotes herding illegal immigrants into the U.S. But ATF Special Agent Tom Mangan said a majority of the guns are smuggled into Mexico for use by drug dealers.
Mangan said this year the ATF Phoenix office learned that about 300 assault-type weapons were brought south on one occasion, and 200 additional assault-type weapons were smuggled on a separate occasion.
Jim Needles, an ATF agent who was recently transferred to Arizona, said he was alarmed by the kind of weapons agents are finding here.
“You see a lot of firearms seized in New York, but not that sophisticated type of weapon,” he said. “You don’t see AK-47s. You don’t see the 50-caliber type of weapons.”