One of the best polymer pistols is the Smith & Wesson M&P series, which show that old dogs really do learn new tricks. Smith was slow to respond to the threat of the Glock to its bread-and-butter police business; its first responses were halting screwups, followed immediately by the Sigma debacle1. But with the M&P they finally got it right. And it’s a common pistol among concealed carriers and in the holsters of cops nationwide.
Like most high-quality pistols, it doesn’t turn up in criminal hands all that often, and when it does, it’s usually a stolen example. ATF exhorts local cops to submit recovered guns for tracing (.pdf); even when the chain of possession is broken by a theft or lack or record, they can trace the gun from manufacturer or importer to point of initial sale and initial buyer’s ID, and even if that’s a dead trail, they can learn some facts and make some useful analytical inferences2.
So in February, 2012, when Plainfield, Connecticut, police seized a Smith & Wesson 9mm from an owner that could not produce a Connecticut “permit to purchase,”3 they entered the details into ATF’s eTrace system. The ATF’s National Tracing System contacted the manufacturer of the firearm, Smith & Wesson, to get a very surprising reply: “We never manufactured that pistol!”4
Sure enough, Smith’s records did not record the serial number at all. But the acquisition and dispositions records of a Smith supplier, Tri-Town Plastics, of Deep River, Connecticut, did.
They showed the serial number as manufactured, and scrapped, in March, 2011. Yet it was sitting in an evidence locker in Connecticut, mute testimony that the Tri-Town books were not right.
Tri-Town had had a fraught record with ATF’s Industry Operations. After a 2009 inspection, they had been given a punchlist of deficiencies to correct and improvements that the inspectors suggested. Whether the company took action or not is not clear. What is clear is that in preparation for the company’s next inspection, in 2011, Tri-Town employees found a dagger pointed at the heart of the company:
23 missing frames, or as the ATF would see it, 23 missing firearms.
One or two missing frames is alarming, but it may be an inventory problem. A couple of dozen missing frames is another matter entirely. The employees realized that having the ATF find 23 firearms missing could be a company-killer; Tri-Town had become dependent on Smith & Wesson work for three-quarters of its revenue. For which work, it had to maintain a clean Manufacturer’s Federal Firearms License.
Whether the workers thought beyond the license implications is not clear. Whether one or both of them knew the disposition of the “scrapped” frames is unknown. Who is the criminal, still at large, that diverted at least one and possibly 23 modern handguns from lawful, regulated commerce into the black market is a mystery at this time. But even if the two workers had been entirely on the up-and-up to this point, what they (the two workers) did next was indubitably a crime: they falsified Tri-Town’s A&D records, recording the 23 missing frames as scrapped. (Crime 1). They did not report the lost inventory to the ATF (Crime 2). And they — as far as the legal case made clear — apparently did not report the case to their superior, Tri-Town General Manager Robert Brinkerhoff.
As a result, the ATF’s 2011 inspection observed the loss of parts to scrap, and didn’t note the inventory discrepancy — on the papers the ATF inspectors saw, it didn’t exist. They had no way of knowing the papers were fraudulent.
ATF didn’t come back to Tri-Town until the 2012 trace on the phantom 9mm. When they did, one of the two employees who falsified the records confessed to Brinkerhoff what he had done. What happened next was a fresh crime: Brinkerhoff did not report the lost frames and falsified records to the ATF, either.
What happened next is unclear, but in June, 2012, some four or five months after learning of the loss and deception, Brinkerhoff finally reported the loss of the 23 firearms. This five month delay was extremely costly for Brinkerhoff. In addition, the report he filed did not notify ATF that the firearms had been previously recorded as scrapped, a material omission.
Brinkerhoff must have been well-represented; in the end, he was initially charged with several felonies times 23 missing firearms, but ultimately was able to plead guilty to two misdemeanors: failing to file a theft/loss report and making false statements in a theft/loss report, one count each. He was sentenced to a year of probation, and as a condition of his probation the judge imposed 90 days’ nonparticipation in any firearms business.
To day, Brinkerhoff is the only individual charged in this interesting case, and the Plainfield pistol is believed to be the only one of the up-to-23 phantom Smiths that are “out there somewhere” to be recovered. The other serial numbers have been noted in the ATF Suspect Gun Database and NCIS, and the investigation continues.
We may speculate as to why the two Tri-Town workers who falsified the original records have not been prosecuted, but only the investigators know.
One wonders if the Brinkerhoff case and the fact that Tri-Town Plastics was then on the bubble (at best) for retaining its FFL was a factor in SWHC’s 2014 acquisition of Tri-Town, which is now “Deep River Plastics, a Smith & Wesson Company.” Not only was Tri-Town completely dependent on SWHC (75% of its business went to the Massachusetts firm), but SWHC was completely dependent on Tri-Town for M&P frames and other parts.
- Then-head of Smith & Wesson Steve Melvin famously directed his engineers to “Copy the mother******!“, and they dutifully did, producing the Sigma. Glock unsurprisingly sued, and unsurprisingly won. Melvin, who knew little about firearms, is also the guy who brought the company near death with a dope-deal with the Clinton Administration to enforce anti-gun “laws” Clinton couldn’t get through Congress.
- “Time-to-crime” is a useful one, although it should probably be called “time-to-recovery” as many traces are not associated with a particular crime. Average times to recovery are pretty long, five or seven years, as few guns break right out of the legit market into the black market early. Short times to recovery are indicative of diversion or trafficking.
- Connecticut, where police and politicians tend to oppose private gun ownership, does not register guns, except for so-called “assault weapons.” Instead, it achieves the same end another way: it registers owners.
- ATF did not tell Plainfield this, by the way. ATF does not share trace data as widely as it might, as a matter of policy; while some ATF agents and inspectors blame this on “the Republicans in Congress” or “the Tiahrt Amendment,” ATF’s Ross Arends has admitted this is not the case, and that the decision is driven by concern about exposing u/c investigations.
These are the ATF press releases related to this case: