BURLINGTON, Wash. – For more than 65 years, Kesselring Gun Shop has been a firearms fixture in the Northwest, arming hunters, target shooters and police from one of the largest inventories on the West Coast.
Until surrendering its federal firearms license last October, the family-owned gun store also may have been the worst gun retailer in America.
It was nearly a decade ago when inspectors with the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) first visited the sprawling gun store – three flat-roofed white buildings clustered on a gravel lot along Old Highway 99 some 70 miles north of Seattle. There they discovered that 2,396 guns were stolen, lost or unaccounted for.
Unable to show inspectors the required paperwork about who had the guns, Kesselring’s owners were hindering police efforts to trace any guns found at crime scenes, putting the public at risk.
“Stunning,” said James Zammillo, a former ATF deputy assistant director, placing Kesselring’s lapses in national perspective. “That is just an incredible number.”
In its 2005 inspection, the ATF not only discovered 2,396 unaccountable weapons but also a host of other illegalities: failing to secure caches of explosive powder; selling guns to customers who couldn’t pass background checks; not confirming buyer identity in 78 instances; neglecting to report missing guns to law enforcement.
Over the next five years, the gun store, run by three Kesselring brothers, continued its high-volume business unabated.
Eventually, the ATF found another 94 missing weapons and more gun-law violations. Also troubling, it determined that in two different years Kesselring exhibited what ATF considers a “red flag” for possible gun trafficking: having 10 or more guns a year with a short “time-to-crime” – from sale to being used in a crime – of under three years.
But only in 2010, a year after the store had a record $14.6 million in sales, did ATF ask Kesselring’s owners to attend a warning conference about the 5-year-old violations. It took another three years marked by many more background-check and record-keeping violations before the agency forced Kesselring to surrender its firearms license for “willful” misconduct.
Kesselring Gun Shop opened in 1947 after Clarence Kesselring, a machinist and self-taught gunsmith, invented and later patented a revolutionary removable scope mount for hunting rifles.
For the past 60 years, the store has sold guns and shooting supplies only. Its aisles bristled with racks of assault-style rifles, shotguns and hunting firearms, and its counter cases displayed hundreds of handguns. Cases of ammunition were stacked thigh-high in every available space in between.
Over the past decade, Kesselring has routinely posted annual sales of more than $10 million, records show.
Despite Kesselring’s high volume, there is no evidence ATF inspected the store until 2005. Following its own guidelines, the agency should have inspected Kesselring in the 1990s, according to a Seattle Times analysis of ATF crime-gun trace data from 1993 through 1997.
Likewise, Kesselring should have raised red flags with the ATF back then for repeatedly selling multiple handguns in a single transaction. Over those five years, Kesselring sold 910 firearms in multiple sales, putting it in the top 1 percent of all gun dealers, according to a Times analysis. The ATF sees numerous multi-weapon sales as an indicator of possible illegal gun trafficking. At least in theory, such sales should trigger a visit from ATF inspectors.
The agency declined to discuss these red flags from the 1990s or details of its later Kesselring investigation.
Beginning of the end
In August 2004, a seemingly innocuous workplace injury at the Kesselring store set in motion a cascade of events that not only drew the ATF’s attention but also set brother against brother and led to tragedy and the end of an era.
That month, the store’s wholesale manager, a trusted employee named Shawn Hoines, said he hurt his back on the job, stooping to pick up a 60-pound case of ammo. Hoines, the store’s only nonfamily member in management, filed a workers’ compensation claim and the state Department of Labor and Industries got involved.
A week later, company Vice President Keith Kesselring fired Hoines, calling his injury claim a “vindictive lie.” In early September, Kesselring went to the Skagit County Sheriff’s Office and accused Hoines of stealing 127 guns, mostly assault-style rifles. In December 2004, records show that Keith Kesselring reported the thefts to ATF inspector Bobby Reyes from the Seattle office.
In November 2005, 11 months after Keith Kesselring filed the ATF theft-and-loss reports, its inspectors showed up at his busy gun store.
Don Kesselring, the company’s 59-year-old president – who had worked there behind the counter since he was a teen – said until that day he’d never seen an ATF inspector at the store. Special Agent Cheryl Bishop, an ATF spokeswoman, said no history of inspections before 2005 could be found.
What the inspectors discovered was a jumble of paperwork and a slipshod accounting system.
According to court records, the shop ran on a system of cash-stuffed envelopes kept by Frances Kesselring, the boys’ mother.
The Kesselrings routinely took cash from the till, according to documents.
When the inspection was complete, ATF found violations in virtually every aspect of the shop’s operation:
• Hundreds of times Kesselring employees failed to have gun buyers provide key information on purchase forms.
• The store sold guns to non-Washington residents.
• In more than 500 cases, Kesselring workers did not document the outcomes of instant background checks.
• In six instances, they failed to document when a customer purchased multiple handguns in one transaction.
So lackadaisical were the store’s operators that nearly 10 months after the inspection began, Kesselring Gun Shop still hadn’t sent in a list of 2,396 missing weapons to the National Tracing Center.
Don Kesselring, in a recent interview, refused to believe all those guns were stolen, although he cannot say what happened to them. Bishop, of the ATF, said many of the guns were likely sold, but the store lost the federal paperwork.
Hoines, the former warehouse manager, believes staff and customers engaged in routine thievery. Many weapons were stored on open racks in the middle of the store, he noted. “Thousands of dollars went out the back door,” Hoines said.
Hoines also claimed that the youngest Kesselring brother, Brad, was responsible for thefts at the shop. As it would turn out, Hoines was right.
In October 2009, Keith Kesselring reported to the Skagit County Sheriff’s Office that Brad had been embezzling from the business. He had taken over the company’s payroll duties in 2003 and since then had been writing big checks to himself, including one for $130,000, according to a police report.
On Oct. 13, 2009, brothers Keith and Jerry Kesselring went to Brad’s home to ask him about the missing money. He came to the door with a handgun and a “thousand yard stare in his eyes,” according to a police report.
Three days later, Brad Kesselring was found dead in his bedroom from a self-inflicted gunshot wound. He left a note admitting to the thefts, which totaled nearly $850,000, according to court documents.