Adam Firestone‘s previous guest spots at Romance University were so popular we invited him to join us as a regular contributor. We’re very excited to welcome Adam to the RU team!
One of the more useful (and, arguably, overused) plot mechanisms in a thriller or mystery is a character’s obtaining a firearm while away from home. Many authors, unaware of the degree to which the law permits and enables travel with firearms, tend to rely on tired (and often incorrect and/or implausible) depictions of extra-legal firearms acquisition. Factual liberties of this type, in addition to being indicative of less than diligent tradecraft on the author’s part, has the potential to actively alienate readers. For the rest of our time together, we’ll discuss both benchmarks for depicting the acquisition of firearms and the realities of acquiring and traveling with firearms in the United States.
The Dogs of War and the Gold Standard
The gold standard for the depiction of weapons acquisition in a work of fiction was set by author Frederick Forsyth in his 1974 novel, The Dogs of War. The novel tells the story of a group of European and African mercenaries hired by a ruthless British industrialist to execute a coup d’etat against the government of the fictional African country of Zangaro. The mercenaries are led by an Anglo-Irish former Royal Marine named Carlos Alfred Thomas (“Cat”) Shannon. Now, had Forsyth left off at this superficial level of detail, the book would have been just another well written and interesting thriller.
But Forsyth didn’t leave off there. He meticulously researched the world of grey and black market arms transfers, and introduced his readers to contractual and regulatory mechanisms such as “End-User Certificates” (EUC), the corruption rampant among the government officials responsible for controlling the issuance of such documentation and the idea that there are places in the world where arms stockpiled for past or future wars can be had for bargain prices.
In doing so, Forsyth not only laid a groundwork of plausibility for his plot, but also created a sub-plot that enticed and involved the reader as much as the main plot (the mercenary-led coup). As a result, Forsyth’s readers transition from passive observers, listening to a story, to participants with knowledge of how, what and why. Factual detail buttressing the fictional plot enticed, enthralled and enfranchised the readers to the point that they were an integral element of the tale.
Bulk Weapons Transfers
Obtaining weapons in bulk requires two things of your characters: They need to know where a suitable supply of the desired weapons can be found, and they need to obtain permission from the local government to export the weapons. Insisting that your characters deal exclusively in and with the Western world may pose some realism issues.
In most developed countries, the international transfer of munitions is tightly controlled. For example, the United States enacted the Arms Export Control Act (AECA) and the related International Traffic in Arms Regulations (ITAR) in 1976. Laws and regulations of this type make it both difficult and dangerous (from the perspective of criminal prosecution) for citizens of the United States, and countries with similar laws, to export weapons and munitions.
However, that need not be an issue for your plotline. Between the Second World War and the end of the Cold War, huge arms stockpiles were built up in Western and Soviet client states in the third world. Government in these countries was (and is) volatile, reacting to shifting ethnic, religious and political winds. What remained (and remains) largely constant was the venal nature of minor (and poorly paid) government functionaries, and the willingness of these officials, for a price, to grease the skids of the international arms trade.
As a result, stocks of shoulder fired anti-aircraft missiles in Tajikistan, AK-47 assault rifles in Angola and heavy machinegun ammunition in Cambodia can be purchased and shipped to almost any desired global destination, if the relevant government official will issue the proper paperwork. In many cases, this paperwork consists of the EUCs mentioned above.
The EUC certifies that the buyer is the final recipient of the materials, and is not planning on transferring the materials to another person or organization. With respect to weapons, EUCs are used by many governments to restrict delivery to undesired destinations or organizations. However, EUCs are a notoriously porous control mechanism. They are often forged or falsified and are routinely obtained from corrupt officials. They also do not guarantee that the recipient will actually live up to its promise not to re-transfer the weapons received. In one example, in 1936-1938, German arms were supplied to both sides in the Spanish Civil War via Greece using Greek then Mexican end-user certificates. In another, Austrian artillery components were shipped to Saddam Hussein’s Iraq in 1987 using EUCs supplied by the Jordanian government.
What about the situation where your protagonist isn’t planning a coup, but needs to get from Savannah, Georgia to Columbus, Ohio or Minneapolis, Minnesota, and to be armed when she gets there? Support for this plotline is blissfully simple, and supported by firearms laws in the United States. For clarity’s sake, we’ll divide the matter into the two primary use cases: Obtaining a firearm in the destination city upon arrival, and traveling with a firearm.
Use Case 1: Obtaining a Firearm Upon Arrival
Firearms laws in the United States are an interesting mix of Federal and State regulations. The interplay between the two can be confusing, and an accurate understanding of what is and is not permitted in a given locality often requires a good deal of familiarity. However, there are a few constants:
Handguns are a no-go. With rare exceptions, it is illegal to transfer a handgun to a person who does not reside in the state where the transfer takes place. Note that I didn’t say it is illegal to SELL or to PURCHASE a handgun. Your protagonist can walk into the gun store of her choice, purchase the pistol of her choice….and the law abiding proprietor will smile and ask her to which licensed dealer in her home state she would like the pistol shipped.
That limits your protagonist to a long gun; either a rifle or a shotgun. Generally speaking, since 1986, a resident of any state can purchase, and receive, a long gun in any other state. However, there are a number of states that still enforce the pre-1986 “contiguous state” restrictions.” Specifically:
a. California: California residents may not purchase long guns in any other state.
b. Colorado: Colorado residents may only purchase long guns in Arizona, Kansas, Nebraska, New Mexico, Oklahoma, Utah and Wyoming.
c. Illinois: Illinois residents may only purchase long guns in Iowa, Missouri, Indiana, Wisconsin or Kentucky.
d. Maryland: Maryland residents may only purchase long guns in Delaware, Pennsylvania, Virginia or West Virginia.
e. New York: New York residents may only purchase long guns in Connecticut, Massachusetts, Pennsylvania, New Jersey and Vermont.
f. Ohio: Ohio residents may only purchase long guns in Indiana, Kentucky, Michigan, Pennsylvania or West Virginia.
g. Oregon: Oregon residents may only purchase long guns in California, Idaho, Nevada or Washington
These restrictions, of course, assume that the person making the purchase isn’t a felon or otherwise legally barred from doing so, and that the long gun in question is of a type that is permitted in the purchaser’s home state.
Use Case 2: Travelling with a Firearm
If you don’t want to have your protagonist spend several pages sauntering into the local arms emporium, there is always the option of having her travel with a firearm. Thanks to a piece of federal legislation, the Firearm Owners’ Protection Act of 1986, a person who legally possesses a firearm in their home state can travel to any other state with the firearm, so long as they can legally possess it at their point of destination. While there are some issues with motor vehicle travel having to do with notoriously restrictive states such as New Jersey, generally speaking, as long as the firearm is unloaded and locked where it isn’t available to the vehicle’s occupants when the vehicle is in motion (i.e., in the trunk), it can be legally transported.
Things become interesting when travel by air is involved. Your protagonist shows up at the airport with her Glock in her luggage. This is perfectly legal provided the following occur:
a. She has packed the unloaded pistol inside a HARD SIDED CASE. This means either a dedicated, lockable hard pistol case packed inside her soft luggage or a piece of hard sided (plastic or metal) luggage.
b. She has declared the unloaded pistol at time of check in.
c. She is the only person with a key or access to the firearm inside the luggage.
The last point is not only critical, but an absolutely phenomenal plot mechanism, so let me make it very clear. Federal regulations absolutely prohibit anyone – including airport personnel and the Transportation Security Administration – from unlocking the container in which the declared firearm has been placed, or, for that matter, possessing the key. This means that your protagonist now has the figurative equivalent of a diplomatic pouch in which to transport not only a firearm, but electronics, documents and just about anything else that isn’t prohibited aboard a commercial aircraft. Once it’s in the piece of luggage with the gun – even if the gun is a flare pistol or a starter pistol – it is completely safe. Assuming, of course that you’ve had your protagonist use a metal case that is secured with heavy-duty padlocks that are resistant to cutting, prying, and picking. And, that, of course, are NOT “TSA locks.” Doing so would violate federal laws and regulations!
Weapons in general and firearms in particular are an integral part of many literary genres, including very popular ones such as the romance thriller. However, mistakes and authors’ willful ignorance of the mechanisms and modalities that enable characters to have access to firearms will not only alienate readers, but deprive the author of useful plot mechanisms.
In a nutshell, the real world intricacies of the bulk transfer of firearms from one country to another country or organization, or the movement of one character with one firearm are, and should be embraced and used by authors to enhance their work and entice their readers.
Do you have any questions for Adam regarding purchasing or transporting weapons? If you have other plot issues regarding weapons, Adam is the one to ask!
New RU staff members DAVE AND MJ THOME host our special guests next week. Join us!
Bio: Adam Firestone brings more than 25 years of experience with weapon systems including small arms, artillery, armor, area denial systems and precision guided munitions to Romance University. Additionally, Adam is an accomplished small arms instructor, editor, literary consultant and co-author of a recently published work on the production of rifles in the United States for Allied forces during the First World War.
Adam has been providing general and technical editing services to authors and publishing houses specializing in firearms books since the early 2000s. Additionally, Adam provides literary consulting services to fiction authors including action scene choreography, technical vetting and technical editing. In this line of experience, Adam has had the fortune to work with well known authors including Shannon McKenna and Elizabeth Jennings.
Check out Adam’s blog here: http://adamfirestoneconsultant.blogspot.com/
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