CAMDEN COUNTY, N.C. -- The private military company Blackwater has found an unusual way to skirt federal laws that prohibit private parties from buying automatic weapons. Blackwater bought 17 Romanian AK-47s and 17 Bushmasters, gave ownership of the guns to the Camden County sheriff and keeps most of the guns at Blackwater's armory in Moyock.
Tiny Camden County -- population 9,271 -- is one of the most peaceful in North Carolina. In the last 10 years, there have been two murders, three robberies and seven rapes reported. The sheriff has just 19 deputies.
Sheriff Tony Perry said his department has never used the 17 AK-47s outside of shooting practice at Blackwater. None of his 19 deputies are qualified to use the AK-47s, Perry said, and his department's need for automatic weapons is "very minimal."
In the summer of 2005, Blackwater CEO Gary Jackson signed two agreements with Maj. Jon Worthington of the Sheriff's Office. Worthington has worked as a firearms instructor for Blackwater.
"Blackwater has financed the purchase of 17 Romanian AK-47 rifles for the Camden County Sheriff's Office for use by Sheriff's Office," the agreement says. "The Camden County Sheriff's Office will have unlimited access to these rifles for training and qualification, and state of emergency use." Worthington and Jackson also signed an agreement for the purchase of 17 Bushmaster XM15 E2S automatic rifles.
Why did Blackwater strike this deal with the Camden County sheriff?
"Because they needed guns, I imagine," Jackson said.
Jackson said Blackwater was a good corporate citizen that provided equipment and training, often free, to local law enforcement.
Did Camden County need more automatic weapons than deputies?
"They are very well equipped," Jackson said.
Perry said he can't remember who came up with the idea for the weapons deal. He said the county was trying to put together a SWAT team at the time.
Not the best choice?
The AK-47 would be a poor choice of weapon for a SWAT team, said John Gnagey, executive director of the National Tactical Officers Association, the national organization of SWAT officers.
As a combat weapon, the AK-47 is too large and powerful for SWAT teams, Gnagey said. It is rugged but relatively inaccurate.
"And there's the perception problem," Gnagey said. "Every terrorist attacking the U.S. is armed with AK-47s. "
Most SWAT teams use the H&K MP5 submachine gun or the Bushmaster M4, he said.
Under federal law, only government agencies -- military or law enforcement -- are allowed to acquire and possess automatic weapons. There is an exception for automatic weapons purchased before May 1986, when the law went into effect.
Firearms dealers are allowed, under strict conditions, to acquire an automatic weapon if they need to demonstrate the weapon to a police department or other government agency interested in buying the weapon.
Under federal law, it is illegal for a person to receive or possess an automatic weapon that is not registered to that person in the National Firearms Registration and Transfer Record. The 34 weapons are registered to the Camden County sheriff. Seventeen AK-47s and five Bushmasters are stored and used at Blackwater. The other 12 Bushmasters are assigned to Camden County deputies, the sheriff said.
Weapons' use defendedJackson, the Blackwater CEO, said he was not violating federal firearms law.
"I don't believe so," Jackson said. "As long as I have contracts, I can buy fully automatic weapons."
Jackson and Erik Prince, Blackwater's owner, said Blackwater used the AK-47s in training to familiarize police officers or members of the military with a foreign weapon that they might come across while making an arrest or on a battlefield.
Blackwater may also use the AK-47s to train military personnel from other countries who come to the United States for anti-terrorism training funded by the State Department, Prince and Jackson said.
"If the contract tells us to, we do it," Jackson said.
The agreement between Blackwater and the Sheriff's Office could be an illegal straw purchase, said Richard Myers, a law professor at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. A straw purchase, Myers said, is when one person fills out the federal firearms registration form to obtain a weapon for another person's use.
"I prosecuted several when I was with the U.S. attorney," Myers said. "If I were Blackwater's attorney, I would be concerned about whether this is a genuine purchase or a straw purchase."
Sheriff Perry said he did not consult a lawyer about the agreement until recently, when the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms and the FBI inquired about the arrangement. Last year two former Blackwater employees pleaded guilty to federal firearms violations. They were sentenced to probation on the condition that they assist federal investigators.
Perry said his department was cooperating fully.
"We're not a target," Perry said. "We may be a victim in it."