What Set the A.T.F. and an Airport Leader on the Path to a Deadly Encounter?

What Set the A.T.F. and an Airport Leader on the Path to a Deadly Encounter?

The loud noises outside their bedroom door woke them before dawn. Bryan Malinowski bolted up and looked at his wife, Maer. “Stay back,” she remembers him saying after he reached into a drawer for his gun and loaded it.

He crept into a hallway in their home in Little Rock, Ark., and saw figures in the darkness. He started shooting, and was met with return fire.

The people shooting back at him were agents with the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, executing a search warrant on suspicion that Mr. Malinowski had repeatedly sold guns without a license. What made this different from many such confrontations was that Mr. Malinowski was a respected official in the community, the director of Little Rock’s airport.

Mr. Malinowski shot an agent in the foot. As the agents fired back, a bullet struck Mr. Malinowski, 53, in the head, and two days later, he died in a hospital. His death has been met with outrage by his family, friends and gun rights supporters in Arkansas and beyond, who say the raid on March 19 was ill-conceived, unnecessary and a shocking case of government overreach.

“Why couldn’t this be avoided?” Ms. Malinowski asked in a recent interview at her home, where newly patched bullet holes lined the olive-toned walls.

Republicans in Congress are asking the same question. In a hearing on Thursday, members of the House Judiciary Committee grilled the director of the A.T.F., Steven M. Dettelbach, about the case, one of the latest tension points in the country’s bitter divide on access to guns.

But in a heavily armed nation where illegal gun sales are linked with other, often violent crimes, some law enforcement experts have defended both the investigation of Mr. Malinowski and the need for serving search warrants early in the morning.

Shortly after the raid, the A.T.F. revealed that it had been investigating Mr. Malinowski for months on suspicion that he had been selling a large number of firearms at gun shows without a license, sometimes soon after he bought them. The law at the time was vague, exempting people who occasionally sold guns as a hobby but not spelling out how many sales was too many.

The evidence gathered by the A.T.F. convinced a judge to sign a search warrant, leading the agents to enter his home on a quiet cul-de-sac that morning. It is unclear if they knocked, and if so, how long they waited before entering. Law enforcement experts said that most warrants specify if permission for no-knock entry has been granted; the warrant in this case did not.

Mr. Malinowski had worked at the Bill and Hillary Clinton National Airport in Little Rock since 2008 and became its executive director in 2019 — so happy about the promotion that he cried when he told his wife, she said. He earned about $256,000 a year — the highest salary on the city payroll. He loved aviation, Ms. Malinowski said, and would have been a Navy fighter pilot if not for his imperfect vision.

Many of his friends and acquaintances knew that he also loved guns, collecting and often selling them at shows around Arkansas.

“Bryan openly talked about going to the gun shows and having a booth,” said Tom Clarke, a colleague of Mr. Malinowski who is now serving as the airport’s interim executive director. “It was a hobby of his that he enjoyed. That’s all it was.”

But an affidavit released by the A.T. F. paints a different picture, stating that Mr. Malinowski was selling so many guns that he should have had a federal firearms dealer license. That would have required him to conduct criminal and mental health background checks on the buyers.

The A.T.F. did not respond to requests for comment. But in Thursday’s hearing, Mr. Dettelbach said the agency would start an internal review of the raid after local prosecutors complete their own investigation and decide whether to press charges against the agents.

“Armchair quarterbacking police officers who were risking their lives, without evidence yet, is not the way to go here,” Mr. Dettelbach said at the hearing, responding to Republican criticism of the decision to execute the search warrant while Mr. Malinowski was in the house.

According to the affidavit, the A.T.F. started investigating Mr. Malinowski late last year after it received a tip from Canadian police officials who had received “a photograph of firearms by a confidential informant.” The A.T.F. used serial numbers on some of those firearms to trace them back to Mr. Malinowski as the original purchaser.

Several guns traced to Mr. Malinowski were recovered from crime scenes, according to the affidavit, although at least three of those crimes were marijuana possession. One of the guns was in the hands of a felon; another was found on a 15-year-old in California who was alleged to have stolen it.

The A.T.F. also found that Mr. Malinowski had purchased more than 150 guns from 2021 to February 2024, including multiples of the same models; the affidavit does not specify exactly how many of those he sold.

Agents seized about four dozen firearms during their search of Mr. Malinowski’s home and vehicle, according to records obtained by The New York Times.

​A central issue in the case is whether Mr. Malinowski qualified for the so-called gun show loophole, which until recently allowed unlicensed private sellers in many states to legally sell at gun shows, out of their homes or online without running background checks. Gun rights supporters say it protected the right of private collectors to buy and sell guns as a hobby; gun control advocates say it allowed criminals to get their hands on thousands of guns every year.

In April, the Biden administration released a rule that closes the loophole by requiring people who “predominately earn a profit through the repetitive purchase and sale of firearms” to register as federally licensed firearms dealers. The rule is facing backlash from gun rights supporters — including Tim Griffin, the attorney general of Arkansas, who is challenging it in court along with a number of other Republican attorneys general.

Mr. Griffin mentioned the Malinowski case when he announced the lawsuit, arguing that “there was confusion” about the distinction between hobbyists and full-time sellers before the raid, and that even with the new rule, “there’s still a lack of clarity.”

Mr. Malinowski’s defenders — including his sister, Lee Ann Maciujec — say that he viewed selling guns as a hobby, that he sincerely believed he classified as a private seller and that the raid was flawed.

“If you break into a man’s house in the South, there’s a big chance that man is going to be carrying,” said James Breeden, a former police officer and friend of Mr. Malinowski, who met him at a gun show.

Still, several law enforcement experts said that Mr. Malinowski’s large number of gun purchases and possible sales raised questions about why he never sought a license, and that he probably should have obtained one.

Joseph Blocher, the co-director of the Center for Firearms Law at Duke University, said the law is hazy about the difference between casual gun traders and profit-seeking dealers repetitively making sales.

Philip J. Cook, a professor emeritus at Duke who has researched the widespread availability of guns, said data shows that criminals overwhelmingly obtain their guns not from licensed dealers but through underground markets. An A.T.F. report released last month shows that unlicensed dealers contribute to a vast firearms black market, even if guns don’t pass directly from their hands to those of criminals.

Some details in the A.T.F.’s affidavit have been contested by Mr. Malinowski’s family, including a passage saying that he drove around neighborhoods in North Little Rock in an “erratic” manner as he pulled into parking lots and turned around. The affidavit states that Mr. Malinowski drove at night to dangerous areas “known for violent crime” and other illicit activities, but that agents did not observe him meeting anyone.

His family insists that Mr. Malinowski, who had a history of buying rental properties, was simply searching for another investment, and that he sometimes went to poker nights at friends’ homes in the area.

Video footage obtained by The Times shows that 57 seconds passed from the moment that agents placed tape over Mr. Malinowski’s doorbell camera to when shots were detected by a neighbor’s security camera. The agents were not wearing body cameras; Mr. Dettelbach said at Thursday’s hearing that while the A.T.F. has started requiring them, the policy has not yet been implemented in Little Rock.

Ken Gray, a former F.B.I. agent, said that it is standard procedure for federal law enforcement to conduct a raid early in the morning and to be armed, especially in a case involving someone who buys and sells guns.

At a recent weekend gun show in Little Rock, where buyers looked at antique Turkish rifles and browsed through a booth selling wreaths made of shotgun shells, friends of Mr. Malinowski whispered to each other about what had happened.

Cecil Taylor, 71, of Springfield, Ark., said he befriended Mr. Malinowski at the gun shows, where they would talk about rare coins and the dozen or so guns that Mr. Malinowski had for sale.

“I think he just enjoyed getting away from all the stress,” Mr. Taylor said. “When you’re at a show and you’re around a lot of people with similar interests, there’s a certain camaraderie involved. And he enjoyed that.”

Mr. Malinowski’s friends from the gun shows said they only learned about his job at the airport after his death.

Kerry Murphy, who runs gun shows where Mr. Malinowski was a vendor, said nothing nefarious stuck out about him.

“If you would have told me to pick anyone in the building, he would have been the last one,” Mr. Murphy said, adding that in his experience, Mr. Malinowski mostly sold ammunition.

Mr. Murphy said that about 40 vendors had pulled out of his most recent gun show, in Little Rock, because of their concerns over the A.T.F.’s raid on Mr. Malinowski.

“They don’t want to be made an example out of,” he said. “They sell their collections, they sell their personal stuff. And they’re all scared.”

Glenn Thrush contributed reporting.

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