Gun store maintains federal license to sell after deadly firearm prank; ATF waiting to act
BERKELEY COUNTY, S.C. (WCSC) - Alison Mrgan remembers her husband, Stefan, as “one of those larger-than-life people.” He took risks in his career. His resume included being a Green Beret and a firefighter.
But it was his time on staff at a gun store which ultimately took his life.
“The idea that he could have been killed in such an unprecedented and easily preventable situation was just unheard of. It was unbelievable. Literally unbelievable,” Mrgan said.
In November, her husband died after his boss, the owner of Coastal Firearms, Jon Whitley, shot him in the face. Whitley told deputies it was a prank that had gone wrong; he thought it was a fake gun.
Whitley is charged with involuntary manslaughter. His arrest took place almost a month after the shooting.
He remains out on bond. If convicted, he could face up to five years in prison.
The store temporarily closed and was reopened two days after the incident, Mrgan remembers.
“There was a family purchasing a firearm for their child standing on the outline of the bloodstain. They didn’t even leave the gun store closed long enough to get the blood out of the carpet,” she said.
Employees callously received her and her family in the days following as they gathered her husband’s belongings left behind, Mrgan said.
“We were left with a massive burden, a burden of grief, a burden of affairs, a burden of trying to support these children that now don’t have a father and it didn’t seem like they really conceptualized what had happened and what they had created,” she said.
Almost a year has passed and Mrgn says not enough is being done to bring justice for her husband’s death.
“To me and my family feels a bit like an insult. It feels like at every turn we’re being dismissed,” she said.
ATF waiting to act
Federal law requires all firearms dealers, manufacturers and even private citizens selling guns to hold a Federal Firearms License.
As of August 2022, there are more than 82,000 license holders nationwide, and more than 1,400 statewide including Coastal Firearms Shooting Sports, listed under J & W LLC.
They must adhere to the various laws and regulations, which include proper documentation and background checks.
Typical reasons to begin a revocation process are related to firearms sales, not safety.
They include willful violations such as:
- Transferring a firearm to a prohibited person
- Failing to conduct a required background check
- Falsifying records, such as a firearms transaction form
- Refusing to permit ATF to conduct an inspection
- Failing to account for firearms
- Failing to maintain records needed for successful firearms tracing
Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms spokesman Corey Ray said in an email “we are aware of the incident that occurred in November and we’re awaiting the outcome of the criminal case.”
Ray also said that the department understands Whitley is “not involved with any transactions related to firearms” while the case is under investigation.
“I think I can comfortably speak for both myself and Steve’s friends and family when we say that this is an outrage. It is the job of regulatory agencies like this to keep the public safe from Firearms related instances. And this is a massive safety violation,” Mrgan said.
However, there is a federal law on the books that could obligate the ATF to act now, according to several sources.
“The law is very clear. They should not be able to receive firearms and to transfer them and to continue to sell them,” Stephen Futeral, a lawyer and former professor of law, said.
Futeral is referring to Federal Statute 18 U.S.C. § 922(n) which states:
It shall be unlawful for any person who is under indictment for a crime punishable by imprisonment for a term exceeding one year to ship or transport in interstate or foreign commerce any firearm or ammunition or receive any firearm or ammunition which has been shipped or transported in interstate or foreign commerce.
Though Whitley has not been formally indicted yet, the Berkely County clerk’s office confirmed, Futeral says “indictment” is defined as “indictment or any information in any court” under federal law.
Since Whitley has been charged, Futeral interprets this as the law would apply in this case.
“There may be a number of reasons why they’re not enforcing this,” he said. “But at the end of the day, this doesn’t require any investigation on the ATF’s part.”
David Chipman, a retired ATF agent with 25 years of experience, said the department is often limited “by design” to enforce what may seem like common sense to the average person.
In this case, that would be basic firearm safety.
Though the license is listed under the LLC and not Whitley, both Chipman and Futeral say it wouldn’t matter in this case.
Chipman also says if revoked, the license can be transferred among family.
An employee who identified himself as the operations manager, but refused to provide his name, declined to comment during an in-person visit to the store this week.
A “private property” sign was placed in the parking lot immediately after.
The ATF has not responded to questions about this statute.
By the numbers: FFL revocations
Out of 1,289 reports of violations in the fiscal year 2020, 40 total licenses were fully revoked.
Other holders received varying degrees of warnings.
ATF protocol says FFL license holders may be inspected annually.
There are 30 specialists who may conduct these inspections that cover all of the Carolinas.
The revocation process may vary, but includes a notice from the ATF, as well as opportunities for a formal hearing and an appeals process.
Fined for failure to follow basic firearm safety
As previously reported, the South Carolina Occupational and Safety Health Administration fined the business $3,000 for violations discovered in the aftermath of the shooting.
The business’ failure to follow basic firearm safety cost them $1,500; the department notes it is a “serious” violation.
OSHA says the maximum penalty for a serious violation is up to $14,500.
The incident is being treated as a workplace accident. But Mrgan says this is no accident.
“An accident is more like someone trips and falls,” she said. “It was completely unpreventable. This was a compounding series of massive safety violations that led to an environment where someone felt as though they could pull a prank with a weapon,” she said.
The Department of Labor reports there will be a follow-up inspection but did not provide a timeline.
Nine months later, a family changed forever
Mrgan, and her two young children, have relocated. Though it is a relief to be far away from the scene of the crime it’s proven difficult to continue pushing for justice.
“The truth is, when you don’t adhere to safety protocol with firearms you are taking a risk. And in this case that risk was with my husband’s life and that was not a risk that they had to take,” Mrgan said. “Now his life is gone and our life is scarred forever.”
Stefan leaves behind three children.
His youngest was just three months old at the time of his death.
“She will never know her dad now. My son is four and he unfortunately understands it way too much. Steve had an older son from a previous marriage that is 13 and he is really struggling in the absence of his father,” she said. “Steve was a really good dad and his kids don’t get to benefit from that anymore.”
The ATF says the case is still under investigation.
No future court date has been set for Whitley.
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