Camden Sheriff showed

Published 8:42 am Sunday, July 6, 2008

By Staff
poor judgment
(This editorial originally appeared in The Daily Advance of Elizabeth City on July 2.)
The federal investigation into a firearms deal involving the Camden County Sheriff’s Office and security contractor Blackwater Worldwide may ultimately bear out what the county’s attorney and a spokeswoman for the company have already claimed about the transaction: that it was legal and neither party did anything criminally wrong.
But we’re not ready to draw that conclusion just yet. Not after the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Firearms, Tobacco and Explosives’ visit to Blackwater last week. The ATF confiscated more than two dozen automatic rifles belonging to the sheriff’s department from Blackwater’s armory during the visit. The federal agency apparently wants to see if the security contractor’s possession of the weapons violated any federal firearms laws.
Even if Camden Sheriff Tony Perry and his department are cleared of any wrongdoing in the ATF probe, they surely are guilty of at least one thing: poor judgment. After all, what sheriff’s department in North Carolina needs AK-47s — the weapon of choice for Taliban fighters in Afghanistan, insurgents in Iraq and militants the world over — to uphold the law and protect its citizens? And what small sheriff’s department anywhere needs 17 AK-47s?
Perry has attempted to explain his department’s ownership of these high-powered rifles — they’re capable of delivering 600 rounds per minute — by claiming that he was putting together a SWAT team and needed weaponry to outfit it.
Blackwater — which has part of its operations based in Camden — apparently didn’t have any trouble finding weapons for Camden. It had only one problem: A pesky federal law that bars private individuals and companies from purchasing AK-47s registered after 1986. The only entities legally allowed to obtain post-1986 automatic weapons are government and law enforcement agencies. Furthermore, it is illegal for a person to receive or possess an automatic weapon if it’s not registered to him.
To comply with these laws, Blackwater and the Camden Sheriff’s Office struck a deal in June 2005: The security contractor would finance the purchase of 17 Romanian-made AK-47s and 17 Bushmaster XM15E2S rifles, but all 34 weapons would be owned and registered to the sheriff’s department. A few of the weapons would be assigned to deputies qualified to use them, but most would be kept at Blackwater’s headquarters. All of the weapons, under the agreement, would be available for the sheriff’s office’s ‘‘unlimited (use) for training, qualification and (during states) of emergency….’’
Perry has said that his department’s SWAT team initially planned to use the AK-47s, but later settled on the Bushmasters when the AK-47s didn’t seem appropriate for SWAT use. Perry has also said that he agreed to store most of the weapons at Blackwater because his office lacked the storage space for them.
There are a couple of problems with these explanations. First, it seems like a giant waste of money — even if it was Blackwater’s money — to buy 17 weapons your department can’t use and your officers aren’t qualified to operate. Why didn’t the Camden sheriff buy one AK-47 and test it before agreeing to purchase 17? Also, Perry surely knew the storage limitations of his office before agreeing to purchase 34 automatic weapons. So why buy so many?
No doubt the ATF is asking similar questions as it tries to get to the truth about how and why this peculiar firearms transaction took place. It does appear that Blackwater may have used the sheriff’s office to get around federal firearms laws, and that Perry’s department served as a willing conduit for the company to gain access to AK-47s and other automatic rifles it otherwise couldn’t buy.
Regardless of what the ATF probe finds, it’s clear the Camden sheriff’s office showed extremely poor judgment entering an agreement to obtain weapons it didn’t need and couldn’t use. We hope Perry’s department isn’t as wasteful with the taxpayers’ money. If nothing else, Perry needs to re-examine what appears to be a too-cozy relationship with the county’s most famous corporate citizen.