That time ICE collected license plate numbers at a gun show

When I saw this headline from McClatchy recently, I had the same negative reaction which I’m guessing many of you would experience. “Feds tracked license plates of gun show attendees.” Wow. If you’re regularly on the lookout for oppressive gun control moves by the federal government it’s hard to read that one and not feel a chill wind blowing. But before we get too carried away, the details of the story need to be examined.

Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents scanned license plates of customers at a California gun show despite no clear evidence of criminal activity at the event.

The Wall Street Journal received documents detailing the plan, after filing a Freedom of Information Act request, that revealed an operation recording vehicles plates at a gun show in Del Mar, California in 2010. The city is not far from the Mexican border, and emails said the information collected there was then compared to cars crossing the border in attempt to catch gun smugglers.

“We would like to see if you can support an outbound guns/ammo operation on (redacted) at the Crossroads (Del Mar) Gun Show,” said an email subjected “Request for Assistance” from an ICE investigator. “We would like to deploy license plate readers.”

As with most things, context is important. First of all, the term “feds” can mean a lot of things, but in this case it was Immigration and Customs Enforcement. (ICE) The gun show in question was taking place in Del Mar, California, near the Mexican border. Rather than some sort of clandestine effort to build a national database of gun owners (which many Democrats would love to see), this was an investigation targeting potential straw purchasers looking to smuggle guns across the border. Of course, one immediately wonders why ICE didn’t contact the ATF if they were looking for Mexican gun smuggling operations since they have so much direct experience in the subject. (See: Fast and Furious)

This may come as a surprise to those who are used to seeing me defend gun rights at each and every turn, but the protestations against this investigation may be missing the mark. I’ve never been opposed to law enforcement using modern technology to record license plates or other activity in the public square if this information can be tapped to solve actual crimes. And when it comes to legal gun purchases in the United States, having the government be aware of the presence of your car at a gun show is the least of your worries. Legal gun owners have their information recorded and tracked meticulously by the government and if they wanted to know your license plate number, well… let’s just say they’ve already got it.

As I said at the top, I can completely understand a basic distrust of the federal government and the idea of license plate scanners at a gun show putting some of you off your feed. But given what ICE was looking for, this was a logical place to check. This is something of a parallel to the objections we hear about police departments using cameras to monitor activity in high crime areas of cities. Activists decry it as racism or profiling or whatever the currently popular term of outrage happens to be, but the fact is that the police are looking for crime where the crime is largely taking place. If you’re looking for international gun smuggling operations, keeping an eye on a large gun show near the Mexican border probably isn’t a stupid place to start. Unless it turns out that the data collected wound up showing up someplace else and was employed against legitimate, legal gun owning citizens I just can’t get all that worked up over this story.