TUCSON -- In recent months, federal and state officials have cited at least eight Chinese students at the UA for fraudulently obtaining resident hunting licenses, and also seized from them a number of firearms whose purchase was enabled by those licenses.
A high-ranking federal official told the Star his agency has no evidence of “malicious intent” by the eight students. Nevertheless, the purchases reveal what officials say is a potentially troubling vulnerability in federal and Arizona firearms laws, which exempt international students and other nonimmigrant visa holders with hunting licenses from prohibitions on gun ownership.
One of the University of Arizona students cited said he was simply intrigued by American gun culture, and wanted to have the experience of shooting his own firearm, a common motivation among the cited students, according to the federal official.
In China, “it’s totally not possible,” Yifei Gong said of his prospects of ever owning a gun in China, where individual gun ownership is heavily restricted. “You probably won’t have a firearm for your life. That’s why most people want a firearm in China. They can’t buy one, that’s why they want one.”
Following advice found online and from fellow international students, Gong went to a Walmart and purchased a resident hunting license in November, according to him and Arizona Game and Fish Department records obtained by the Star. With the license, he said, he went to a gun shop and bought a semi-automatic RAS47, a U.S.-made rifle designed to mimic the Kalashnikov.
While self-defense was an element of his desire to purchase a gun, Yifei said it was first and foremost for “fun,” and he took his rifle to local shooting ranges several times.
But Gong’s time as an Arizona gun owner was to be short-lived.
In the early morning of Dec. 6, a state game and fish officer and Immigration and Customs Enforcement Homeland Security Investigations agents went to Gong’s off-campus Tucson apartment to ask about his license and, ultimately, to seize his firearm, according to a report.
Gong was cited by the state officer for fraudulently obtaining a hunting license, a class 2 misdemeanor to which he pleaded guilty and paid a fine. He is facing no other state or federal charges, according to court documents and a federal official.
Gong’s experience was not an isolated incident. As of early May, seven other Chinese students at the UA had been similarly cited and had their guns taken, according to court records and HSI.
The citations and seizures are the most recent development in what Scott Brown, the Phoenix HSI special agent in charge, described as a more than year-long project of the Alliance to Combat Transnational Threats, a multi-agency group of state and federal agencies, including Customs and Border Protection, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives and the Arizona Department of Public Safety.
Despite the ominous sound of the name, Brown said HSI, the lead agency on the matter, does not suspect the eight UA students had any “malicious intent” when they acquired their licenses and guns. He did say there are a “very small number” of other cases where there could be such intent, but even with those, Brown clarified, “our concern isn’t necessarily that they themselves pose the direct threat.”
“People like to go out in the desert and shoot guns, U.S. citizens and foreign students alike,” he said of what his agency found to be the most common motivation at play.
Though there is no evidence of any public safety threat, Brown said the cases highlight what he described as a loophole in firearms regulation that “could be exploited by those with malicious intent.”
“This is occurring in other states, where there are foreign students, where there are similar state hunting license requirements,” he added.
As it stands under federal law, nonimmigrant visa holders, like international students, are generally prohibited from owning guns. However, exemptions are made for those with a valid hunting license or permit, according to the ATF’s website. Arizona law reflects that exemption.
To buy a resident Arizona hunting license, applicants must have lived in the state for six months and not claim residency in another state or jurisdiction, according to the AZGFD. One of the requirements of an F-1 student visa is maintaining “a residence abroad which you have no intention of giving up,” according to the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Service’s website. That designation would typically prevent an international student from being able to get a resident hunting license.
“The visa paperwork make it very clear that they are not a resident of the United States,” said Gene Elms, law enforcement branch chief with Arizona game and fish. “They don’t qualify for a resident license in Arizona.”
Nevertheless, Gong said he easily purchased a resident tag at the Walmart on South Houghton Road last November, something Elms said he wasn’t surprised to hear. Other students purchased their resident licenses similarly, though two bought them through AZGFD’s online hunting license portal, according to AZGFD reports.
“I went to Walmart and they asked me how long I’ve been here. I’ve been here for at least two years, and they just assumed that I’m a resident of Arizona, and that’s the hunting license they gave me,” Gong said.
A Walmart spokesperson confirmed Gong’s purchase. “We have policies and procedures in place to help ensure we comply with applicable laws when issuing hunting licenses. A customer must provide valid identification at the time of the purchase to confirm residency,” a statement from the company reads.
Several local gun shops declined to sell Gong a gun, citing their policy of not selling to international students. However, he said he eventually found one where his hunting license and other documents were enough to buy an RAS47.
“I did not know (I was breaking the law) until they seized my firearm. I believe that most of the people who are cited with this charge did not know that,” Gong said. “If there is something wrong with my hunting license, why would they sell it to me?”
Nonresident Arizona hunting licenses, while significantly more expensive than resident tags, can be purchased by nonimmigrant visa holders in Arizona. It’s legal for such license holders to buy and own a firearm until the license expires, at which time “they become a prohibited possessor,” said Mark Hart, a spokesman for the game and fish department.