Hand-painted signs in Amish country often advertise fresh eggs, shoofly pies, or handmade quilts, but the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives is trying to determine whether one Lancaster County farmer’s sizable gun collection was also his side hustle.
An ATF spokesperson said agents seized evidence during an “enforcement operation” on Jan. 12 at the Cattail Foundry in Leacock Township, Lancaster County, but declined to comment further. Two sources familiar with the investigation said approximately 600 firearms were seized during the operation.
On Wednesday morning, farm owner Reuben King declined to comment on the matter at his home, but he did talk to Lancaster Online several weeks ago. King told the news outlet he was a dairy farmer, first and foremost, but admitted selling “some” firearms from his personal collection to fellow Amish and a few non-Amish, too.
Sources said handguns were among the weapons taken by ATF. King told Lancaster Online he mostly sold long guns, for hunting.
“I was not dealing in handguns, positively not,” King said last month.
The ATF said the investigation is ongoing but no charges have been filed. King told The Inquirer he hadn’t hired an attorney.
The Amish, generally, do not pose for photographs, and therefore, most don’t get the photo IDs needed to purchase firearms from licensed gun shops. Hunting rifles and shotguns, known as “long guns,” can be sold privately between two parties without a background check or photo ID.
Joshua Prince, a Pennsylvania attorney who specializes in firearms law, said the ATF operation at King’s farm could lead investigators into a murky area. It’s not clear, he said, how many firearms an individual would have to sell in order for that person to be considered a firearms dealer. The ATF’s own website said licenses are required for individuals who “repetitively buy and sell firearms with the principal motive of making a profit” but not for the “occasional sales of firearms from your personal collection.”
“It’s so vague, and that’s going to be the government’s biggest hurdle,” Prince said. “It could turn out that they just say ‘Listen, don’t do this again.’ ”
Prince, who is not affiliated with King’s case, sued the federal government in 2015 on behalf of an Amish man from Northumberland County who felt he should have a religious exemption from the photo identification needed for a firearms purchase. Prince said he could not discuss the outcome of the case, but said any Amish person can produce all the documentation needed to get a photo identification in the first place.
“I think that’s unconstitutional,” Prince said of the photo requirement. “There is a way to prove our identity in the absence of pictures. We aren’t born with photo ID.”
U.S. Rep. Bob Gibbs, a Republican from Ohio, introduced a bill in December to allow the Amish to purchase guns without a photo ID.
Steve Nolt, an Elizabethtown College professor who has studied Amish society for decades, said the Amish aren’t a monolith and that customs and adherence to certain beliefs about photography and use of technology vary by location.
“I would say there’s a small number of Amish who get photo IDs,” he said.
At the Sportsman’s Shop, a large firearms dealer and gun range nine miles north of King’s home, a manager said plenty of Amish customers come in with photo ID, particularly during hunting season.
“We do sell a lot of new guns to the Amish,” said the manager, who asked not to be identified.
There was no signage at King’s farm Wednesday that suggested he sold firearms there. A non-Amish man wearing a shirt in support of the Second Amendment was driving around the property, also looking to speak to him.
Most Amish families own a long gun, Nolt said, and their interest in hunting goes back centuries. That interest, however, has grown beyond sustenance.
”Hunting has also become a recreational sport for them,” he said. “They own hunting cabins up north. They take hunting trips.”
Nolt was surprised, however, at the sheer number of guns the ATF allegedly seized during the operation last month. He also said it’s unusual for the Amish to use or own handguns.
“There’s no real history of the Amish using guns for personal protection,” he said. “There would be a bit of a taboo with handguns.”
Staff writers Jeremy Roebuck and William Bender contributed to this article.