The trial of a Leacock Township Amish farmer charged with allegedly selling firearms without a proper license is set to begin late this month after a judge denied a motion to dismiss the indictment.
Reuben King of Gordonville was charged in June for allegedly selling firearms from October of 2019 until January of 2022 without a proper license. Agents from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) raided his farm on West Cattail Road in January of 2022, confiscating a total of 615 guns, including rifles and shotguns of various calibers, according to court documents.
King told media outlets last year that he sold long guns mostly to the Amish for hunting from his private collection and that selling guns was not his main business, instead working primarily as a dairy farmer.
King was released in July on $50,000 bail, and his trial was originally scheduled to begin on Nov. 14 at the Edward N. Cahn Courthouse & Federal Building in Allentown in front of U.S. District Judge Joseph F. Leeson Jr.
King won a continuance in his trial until Jan. 30 after Leeson ruled in September that failure to grant the delay “would result in a miscarriage of justice” because of the complications of King’s Amish religious beliefs and “pretrial briefing on numerous complex legal issues.”
According to court documents, the trial is still currently scheduled to begin Jan. 30 with a one-day jury selection at the James A. Byrne U.S. Courthouse in Philadelphia before moving to Allentown for the trial.
If convicted, King could be sentenced for to up to five years in prison and fined up to $250,000.
Motion to Dismiss
In a motion to dismiss the indictment filed on Nov. 7, King’s attorney Joshua Prince of Bechtelsville, Berks County, argued the single charge should be dismissed on several points, including new legislation passed by the U.S. Congress, recent gun decisions by the U.S. Supreme Court and First Amendment arguments surrounding freedom of religion.
Prince cited a 15-page document posted to the ATF’s site titled, “Do I need a license to buy and sell firearms?” that states the federal Gun Control Act “requires that persons who are engaged in the business of dealing in firearms be licensed by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives.”
“Determining whether you are ‘engaged in the business’ of dealing in firearms requires looking at the specific facts and circumstances of your activities,” the document said, indicating that federal law doesn’t set a “bright-line” rule for when a federal firearms license is required and that there is “no specific threshold number or frequency of sales, quantity of firearms, or amount of profit or time invested that triggers the licensure requirement.”
The ATF document also says a person “will need a license if you repetitively buy and sell firearms with the principal motive of making a profit.”
To address some of the vagueness of the language in the document, the U.S. Congress amended the definition of engaged in the business of firearms dealing through the Bipartisan Safer Communities Act of 2022, changing the statute portion “with the principal objective of livelihood and profit” to “to predominantly earn a profit.”
Prince also argued that the recent decision by SCOTUS in the case New York State Rifle and Pistol Association v. Bruen lays out a methodology to determine if the “plain text” in the Second Amendment overrides a state or federal law regarding firearms.
“An inescapable precondition of keeping and bearing arms is purchasing those arms, making the implicit right to buy and sell firearms a necessary complement protected by the plain text of the Second Amendment,” Prince said in the filing.
A second step in the Bruen test requires that the government “must demonstrate that the regulation is consistent with this Nation’s historical tradition of firearm regulation” if the regulation is to be upheld by the courts, with SCOTUS placing the timeline sometime around the early 1800’s.
Prince said it wasn’t until 1938 that firearms became subject to a licensing requirement through the passage of the Federal Firearm Act. The Gun Control Act of 1968 later amended the Federal Firearms Act and still governs firearms licensing today.
An additional argument made include issues surrounding the requirement of a photo ID to obtain a federal firearms license to sell guns. According to the statute, applicants who do not include a photograph are not eligible to receive a firearms license.
Jacqueline Romero, the U.S. Attorney overseeing the case, responded to the motion to dismiss in December, laying out the government’s case against King.
According to the government:
Between Oct. 24, 2019, and March 16, 2020, King sold five firearms to the same undercover police officer in three separate transactions. The transactions were recorded in audio and video.
During the transactions, King offered numerous different long arms for sale in a barn on his property. The undercover officer saw and filmed an estimated 150 long arms marked with price tags and set out on tables in the barn for sale.
On June 11, 2020, ATF Special Agents Neil Zubaty and Nicholas Graham served King with a cease-and-desist letter, saying that his firearms activity appeared to meet the definition of a dealer and that he needed to stop sales until he obtained a license. King signed the letter and told the agents that he did not sell firearms as a business, but only occasionally sold personal long arms from his collection.
But in November of 2020, March of 2021, and December of 2021, King sold four firearms to two different undercover Pennsylvania State Troopers in three transactions.
On January 12, 2022, ATF special agents executed a federal search warrant at King’s barn, recovering 615 long guns, some marked with price tags. The agents also recovered “detailed records” that showed thousands of purchases and sales of guns over several years, along with receipts for advertisements placed in a local newspaper offering firearms for sale under several names and phone numbers.
“Contrary to his assertion, there is no Second Amendment right to deal in firearms,” Romero said in the filing. “There is thus no constitutionally impermissible tension in this case between his exercise of religious freedom under the First Amendment and any right guaranteed by the Second Amendment.”
In an opinion issued in December, Leeson responded to King’s objections, denying all of the arguments.
Under the argument that the Gun Control Act is unconstitutionally vague, Leeson said King’s actions depicted an individual engaged in dealing firearms and not simply selling from a personal collection. Leeson cited the government’s allegation that King sold nine firearms in total to three different undercover police officers over the course of six separate transactions and the discovery of 615 firearms in his barn.
“Even though there is not a bright-line rule for how many firearm transactions it takes to trigger the need for a license, King’s alleged conduct clearly trips that trigger because it goes well beyond the occasional buying and selling that occurs with maintaining a personal collection or for pursuing a hobby,” Leeson said in his opinion. “King may, of course, present evidence to a jury that his conduct did not require a license under the Act, but neither the vagueness doctrine nor the rule of lenity is grounds for dismissing the indictment in this case.”
Leeson also addressed the argument that the Gun Control Act is unconstitutional under the Second Amendment. He said the Supreme Court has held that the right to “bear arms” refers to the right to “wear, bear, or carry upon the person or in the clothing or in a pocket, for the purpose of being armed and ready for offensive or defensive action in a case of conflict with another person.”
He said the plain text of the Second Amendment protects the “right to keep and bear arms for self-defense.”
In King’s argument that the buying and selling of firearms is also protected under the Second Amendment, Leeson said it was “unpersuasive” because of the amendment’s plain text that it includes the right to self-defense.
“Even if the Court assumed that there is an implicit right in the Second Amendment to buy and sell firearms in order to keep and bear arms, that is not the same thing as a right to buy and sell firearms as a regular course of trade or business with the principal objective of livelihood and profit through the repetitive purchase and resale of firearms,” Leeson said in his order. “In other words, the Second Amendment does not protect the commercial dealing of firearms.”
Leeson also disagreed with King’s argument that the Gun Control Act violates the First Amendment because of the requirement for a photograph to obtain a license. Leeson said submitting a photograph is only one requirement under the act, and King never applied to receive a license.
“King does not claim that he ever sought a religious accommodation under the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA),” Leeson said in the order. “Had he done so, and been denied an exemption from the photograph requirement, then the court’s analysis may very well be different. However, since King never applied or sought an exemption from the photograph requirement, he cannot claim now that his freedom to exercise his faith was substantially burdened under the act.”