WASHINGTON – Rene Carlos Vos, an arms dealer in Alexandria, Virginia, began hanging around the Washington headquarters of the National Rifle Association in the mid-1980s. The NRA’s staff were intrigued to see the garrulous, back-slapping Vos in the group’s seventh-floor suite, home to its lobbying operation and the chief congressional lobbyist, Wayne LaPierre.
Vos and LaPierre struck those who saw them huddle together as an odd couple. Vos took to cowboy boots and neatly pressed western wear.
“He came off like something of a dandy and a hustler, glad-handing with everybody,” recalled Johnny Aquilino, a former NRA communications director.
LaPierre, by contrast, was remote and quiet, a hand-wringer with an obsessive interest in the intricacies of the legislative process who wore wrinkled suits and carried sheaves of paper — the congressional record, vote counts, handwritten notes — around the organization’s Washington headquarters.
But the two men struck up a partnership. Vos would be temporarily hired as a lobbyist for the NRA, helping LaPierre press the gun lobby’s agenda on Capitol Hill. And when Vos formed the company Blue Sky Productions, which would become involved in importing tens of millions of dollars of military rifles, LaPierre signed on as his partner, state and federal records show.
Together, the two friends would play a key role in the early growth of America’s civilian market for military-style weapons.
The legislative changes that LaPierre supported as the NRA’s chief lobbyist in the mid-1980s opened the door to the import of military-surplus weapons, which effectively had been banned for two decades. The legislation helped make a new, more powerful class of firearms more readily available to civilian gun owners and begin to shift the profile of American gun ownership.
The arms deal put together by Vos’ company — a $58 million venture to import 50-year-old American-made M-1 rifles from South Korea back to the United States — proved so lucrative that other gun merchants immediately tried to follow their lead. Other importers would seek to bring in more military weapons, not just American but also foreign-made arms like Russian Kalashnikovs and Israeli Uzis, and new business associations sprung up to represent their interests in Washington.
The Blue Sky deal may have helped whet the appetite of American consumers for more and more military-style weapons. Before long, American manufacturers stepped up domestic production of such firearms, including semi-automatic assault rifles and high-capacity pistols, to meet the burgeoning demand.
Some in the gun industry say this transformation was inevitable, regardless of the Blue Sky deal, as technology evolved. Just as cellphones became lighter and more powerful, they say, so did firearms.
But Josh Sugarmann of the Washington-based Violence Policy Center says that the 200,000 rifles imported by Blue Sky were “basically the first of the military weapons marketed to the civilian population. If you were going to draw an ‘assault weapons timeline,’ it would start with the M-1 and eventually end up where we are today.”
By 2012, nearly 1 million of what gun advocates call “modern sporting rifles” were coming into the U.S. market from foreign and domestic sources in a single year.
LaPierre would watch this transformation from up close. He would become the NRA’s top official and best-known champion, shedding his retiring personality and frumpy appearance for fiery speeches and well-tailored suits. And in recent weeks, he led the successful effort to turn back new legislation in Congress to restrict assault weapons. LaPierre declined repeated requests to comment for this article.
Vos, however, would not live long enough to witness his legacy. He died in 1987 in a plane crash while federal investigators were examining his activities as part of a grand jury probe into the Blue Sky deal.
The modern tale of military-style weapons in America opens on Capitol Hill, in mid-1984, when Sen. Bob Dole introduced an amendment that would open a loophole in the long-standing restrictions on importing military firearms. Dole’s top aide on gun issues at the time, Richard “Pete” Velde, said the senator drafted and sponsored the legislation without any pressure from private interest groups.
FBI investigators, however, later noted that the NRA was at the center of efforts to open the U.S. market to military imports, and LaPierre said in a 1988 interview with The Washington Post that he had lobbied on the amendment personally. Former NRA Executive Vice President J. Warren Cassidy recalled that LaPierre’s work on Capitol Hill for NRA priorities was tireless. “His hobby was lobbying,” Cassidy recalled.
The Dole amendment would, for the first time, allow the import of surplus U.S. military weapons if they qualified as “curios and relics,” meaning they had been manufactured at least 50 years earlier or had historical or artistic significance.
The passage of the amendment immediately caught the attention of arms dealers, who realized that big profits could be made in purchasing large quantities of old U.S. military surplus weapons and selling them to American customers.
A former congressman from New York, John Murphy, was among those who saw the potential. In an interview last month, Murphy recalled being contacted by a Korean-born California businessman, Dong H. Choi, who told him South Korean officials were interested in selling surplus M-1 rifles provided to their country in the 1950s under a U.S. lend-lease program.
The deal Choi described looked promising. For $13 million, importers could purchase 200,000 surplus M-1 rifles and eventually see profits in excess of $40 million. “It was a very good deal,” said Murphy, who described himself in the interview as an adviser to the subsequent import deal. “The curio and relic law was the basis of the importation,” he recalled.
As a platoon leader during the Korean conflict, Murphy had developed high regard for his M-1 Garand rifle. “It became known as the best weapon on the battlefield. It had power,” he said. The rifles would be attractive to sportsmen and veterans, Murphy thought. And collectors would want to mount the 50-year-old M-1 rifles “over the fireplace to show kids what grandpa carried during the war,” he said.
But there were limits to what Murphy could do to promote the deal. He’d become well known for his 1980 conviction arising from the Abscam congressional corruption probe. So Murphy said he contacted people in Washington familiar with importing and shipping weapons. Among those who came on board was Richard “Preacher” Whitner, a ex-aide to Republican Sen. Strom Thurmond and an expert in the international arms trade who had lobbied for defense contractors, and Rep. Bill Dickinson, who in the 1980s was the ranking Republican member of the House Armed Services Committee.
The group looked to Dickinson’s longtime friend Vos to help arrange the deal and distribute the weapons once they arrived in the United States.
Vos’ business was the retail sale of guns. He ran a well-known store in Alexandria that traded as Old Town Armory. In September 1985, Vos formed a new company, Blue Sky Productions. Records list his only partner in the enterprise as LaPierre.
A month later, Vos submitted a firearms license application to the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms and listed LaPierre as “secretary treasurer” of Blue Sky. The application, signed by Vos, said Blue Sky would engage in “importation of surplus weapons, plus items of current manufacture.”
LaPierre later told his boss, Cassidy, that he been asked to join Blue Sky by Vos “and that he did sign some papers, but he said he did not really know anything about it,” Cassidy recalled. LaPierre said in the 1988 Post interview that he thought Blue Sky was set up to organize rock concerts.
In June 1986, Vos traveled to South Korea to negotiate a contract to import the M-1 rifles. Murphy, Whitner and others in Washington monitored the effort from afar, Murphy said, and they grew concerned when they received reports from Seoul that Vos was changing the agreed terms of the deal to further benefit himself.
Two months later, a deal with the Koreans was signed and the first shipment of weapons was sent from Seoul, bound for Vos’ gun store in Alexandria, according to federal records.
But before they arrived, U.S. Customs officials seized the shipment of 40,000 rifles at the port of San Francisco. Federal records show that an anonymous tipster had reported that the weapons had been acquired through bribery and that the import records were inaccurate.
Customs officials found no evidence to support the bribery accusation. But they concluded that, even if the weapons were “curios and relics” under terms of the 1984 Dole amendment, their shipment to the U.S. would violate another law, the Arms Export Control Act of 1976, which prohibited the import of weapons provided to a foreign country under a U.S. military aid program. A deputy ATF counsel in Washington, Jack Patterson, sided with customs officials and revoked the Blue Sky import permit. The weapons were seized.
In response, members of Congress and Blue Sky’s other influential allies in Washington sprung into action, pressing on behalf of the deal. It was the strongest political pressure Patterson said he had ever had seen during more than two decades with the ATF.
“It stirred up a hornets nest,” he recounted in a recent interview.
As the weapons sat at a San Francisco warehouse, the Justice Department launched an investigation into the transaction, and a federal grand jury was convened in Washington. The FBI took the lead but other parts of the Justice Department were also engaged, including the newly formed Foreign Corrupt Practices office, and the Public Integrity Section, which reviews allegations of unethical behavior by U.S. public officials, along with the ATF, then part of Treasury.
According to FBI files, investigators were concerned not only about the bribery claims but about whether there were improprieties in the issuance of the import license.
The investigators’ interest, however, went beyond the deal to the genesis of the “curios and relics” loophole, the NRA’s role in the legislation and potential benefits for arms traders. An FBI report, released under the Freedom of Information Act, noted that “the idea for the Curios and Relics Act originated at the NRA. The importation of military surplus to the United States had been illegal since 1968 and the NRA wanted to reopen the market.” It noted there had been “a lot of interest within the industry concerning the Curios and Relics Act and its ramifications.”
Retired ATF special agent Dick Pedersen, who was the lead ATF investigator looking into the import transaction, said in a recent interview that he had concerns about the role that members of Congress and NRA officials might have played in the import deal and about the high-level political pressure that had been brought to bear on its behalf. “I remember thinking, ‘This whole thing stinks,’ ” he said. “It didn’t pass the smell test.”
By the time, the FBI and ATF had opened their investigation into the deal, LaPierre had already ended his involvement in Blue Sky.
“My understanding was that LaPierre had discontinued the association and was gone as soon as there was a whiff of controversy,” Murphy said. Even before that, Murphy said he never saw LaPierre play a role in the import deal.
When the investigation became public, LaPierre came into Cassidy’s eighth-floor office at NRA headquarters near tears, according to Cassidy. “He told me, ‘I had nothing to do with this thing,’ ” Cassidy recalled. Cassidy added, “He did tell me he resigned from Blue Sky.”
LaPierre told federal investigators in the 1980s that he left Blue Sky shortly after it was set up. He said in the 1988 Post interview that he told Vos he would not be involved in the deal and that such an investment might have created an appearance of a conflict of interest because of LaPierre’s position at the NRA. There is no evidence that LaPierre invested in Blue Sky.
Vos had also parted ways with Blue Sky before the probe started. Murphy, Whitner and others involved in the transaction were upset over his freelancing in negotiating the import deal with the Koreans. They ejected him from the enterprise, according to Murphy and accounts provided to the FBI. A letter to the ATF reported that Blue Sky’s assets had been acquired by a group of partners that included Whitner, Choi and others.
But that was not the end of the story for Vos. Federal investigators offered him immunity from prosecution in exchange for his testimony about the role played by members of Congress and about allegations of bribery in Korea, according to Justice Department documents in the case obtained by the Violence Policy Center through the Freedom of Information Act.
As the probe proceeded, Vos felt “that he was under a great deal of pressure,” according to federal investigators. A close friend told them that Vos had recently broken up with his girlfriend and was also “trying to protect his friends” as the grand jury probe intensified.
During the summer of 1987, Vos said he wanted to take up a new hobby and learn to fly. He hired a well-regarded training pilot at Northern Virginia’s Dulles International Airport, Gerda Ruhnke, as his instructor.
On a clear November morning, during his maiden flight as a student pilot, his single-engine Cessna, flying smoothly over Warrenton, Virginia, suddenly nose-dived, crashed into a driveway and burst into flames. Both Vos and his instructor were killed.
The National Transportation Safety Board was never able to determine the cause of the crash.
Without Vos’ testimony, the grand jury was unable to pursue the case, and it was closed within a year. No charges were filed.
On Capitol Hill, meantime, the importers’ allies had gone to work on legislation to make the M-1 rifle deal legal. Murphy laughs about it today, recalling how he helped line up nearly 80 members of Congress in support.
The legislation would amend the Arms Export Control Act to “provide that military firearms of U.S. manufacture” could be imported to the United States if they were “eligible for importation as curios and relics and are owned by the foreign government.”
The measure was tailor-made for Blue Sky. The change specifically applied to deals that had received import permits from the Treasury Department on or after July 1, 1986 — Blue Sky had received its permit that July — and instructed that these permits be immediately reissued if they had been suspended, as had the Blue Sky permit.
When Sen. Howard Metzenbaum, a Democratic Senate Judiciary Committee member, learned about the language buried in an appropriations bill, he called foul.
On the floor of the Senate, he railed against the latest legislative fix, detailing the history of the Blue Sky deal all the way back to the Dole amendment.
“This is a provision designed to help one group of people make millions of dollars . . . when conduct by persons associated with this group is the subject of a criminal investigation,” Metzenbaum said.
Despite his objections, the appropriations bill with the gun amendment was approved by Congress and signed in to law by President Ronald Reagan.
The legislation included language granting federal agencies the power to object if the measure interfered with any ongoing criminal investigation. After a review of the Korea deal by John Bolton, an assistant attorney general in the Reagan administration, and no objections from the State and Defense departments, Treasury officials signed off on the imports. Blue Sky had the green light to bring 200,000 M-1 military rifles into the U.S. market.
Today, amid government reports that M-1 carbine rifles and newer military weapons are being used by violent criminals, the Obama administration has been pushing to limit imports. The administration has ongoing concerns about importing large numbers of M-1 rifles because of reports that those weapons have found their way into the hands of violent drug cartels, said an official familiar with the administration’s ongoing deliberations who spoke on the condition of anonymity.
As part of the antiviolence initiative announced by President Barack Obama after the Newtown, Connecticut, school shootings, he called on Congress to tighten the rules on importing military-style weapons. He specifically urged that the “curios or relics” loophole not be used as a way for buyers “to acquire fully functional and powerful military weapons.”
The NRA opposes that proposal.