University of Arizona Chinese international student Yifei Gong purchased this RAS47 after getting a resident hunting license. — Credit: Courtesy Yifei Gong

Courtesy Yifei Gong

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 obtained using 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.

“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 Homeland Security Investigations.

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 yearlong project of the Alliance to Combat Transnational Threats, a multiagency 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, Homeland Security Iinvestigations, the lead agency on the matter, does not suspect the eight UA students had any “malicious intent” when they acquired their licenses and guns, Brown said. 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.

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 Game and Fish Department. 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 statement from the company read. “A customer must provide valid identification at the time of the purchase to confirm residency.”

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.

No “big hammer”

In late 2015, the FBI issued a warning after it received reports of Chinese international students “legally” purchasing guns, according to a Dec. 23 Phoenix ABC 15 story.

In one case detailed in the broadcast, a Chinese student was expelled and deported after bringing two AR-15s onto the Arizona State University campus. Brown described that incident as “the most serious” in Arizona involving an armed international student.

Then, on Jan. 16, Juang Yue, a 19-year-old Chinese student at ASU, was shot and killed in a road-rage incident, news of which spread quickly in the Chinese student community.

In the wake of the tragedy, some Chinese students expressed an interest in buying guns for self-defense, and information on how to acquire them circulated online, as did warnings about the potential dangers of gun ownership. Gong said he was aware of the incident but that it played only a small role in his desire to purchase a gun.

It was around the time of the FBI warning and shooting that ASU’s Police Department asked the ATF for assistance with foreign student gun purchases. ATF, in turn, reached out to HSI because of its expertise in immigration-related issues, according to Brown.

In late 2016, state game and fish employees also noticed an uptick in students who did not appear to be residents coming to their Tucson office to buy hunting licenses, Elms said.

It took time, Brown said, to acquire the records necessary to determine who may have purchased licenses and firearms illegally, as well as what their intent was. The hunting license charges started coming in late 2016, according to court records. But those misdemeanor citations came from the state wildlife agency, not HSI, which could have brought more serious federal firearms charges.

“If there’s no malicious intent and we can get the students into compliance, remove the unlawfully obtained firearms ... we don’t need to drop a big hammer,” Brown said about why the state filed the charges.

Beyond Gong’s AK-47 lookalike, HSI agents have seized handguns and other rifles from the UA students.

“Every person that we’ve talked to, that we’ve seized weapons from, has acknowledged that they were not purchased for the purpose of hunting,” Brown said. “One person did say they were for hunting coyotes. The story was so hideously inaccurate he eventually decided that he didn’t want to stick with that story.”

Updates, reform needed

There are several efforts underway to make it more difficult for foreign students to improperly purchase guns. While declining to go into details, Brown said the Legislature and Congress may eventually consider legislation that would “close the vulnerabilities.”

At the state level, the goal would be to reach “a standardized definition of residency in alignment with the federal definition of residency,” Brown said.

When it comes to nonresident hunting licenses, Homeland Security Investigations feels they should enable nonimmigrant visa holders to purchase only guns “specific to hunting/outdoor game sportsmanship,” according to a statement provided by the agency.

While he’s sympathetic to the concerns raised by HSI and others, Elms pointed out that many foreign nationals come to Arizona to hunt from around the world and legislative changes could negatively impact their ability to do so.

If the department’s commission backs a state legislative change, Elms said the state Game and Fish Department might support it, but at the end of the day, it is federal law “that creates this loophole,” referencing the hunting license exemption for nonimmigrant visa holders purchasing guns.

“Our state statute simply points to that federal legislation,” he added.

In their statement, HSI agrees that the federal exemptions for nonimmigrant visitors “need to be updated.”

“HSI and law enforcement partners have discussed that aliens here for specific hunting and/or professional sporting competition should be the only ones in possession of firearms or granted exemption to purchase firearms,” the statement goes on to say.

In the next few years, Game and Fish is switching to an online-only license application process, which could make inappropriately purchasing a resident license less likely. “When you do apply online, you’re prompted with a lot more questions than you would be at the Walmart,” Elms said.

Elms and Brown agreed that education could go a long way toward addressing the issue. In the wake of the citations, Brown said HSI and other agencies are working with state universities to make sure such students have a better understanding of gun laws and hunting license requirements.

“Life outside of campus can be complicated for all students, domestic and international, and occasionally in upholding all state and federal laws,” a statement from the UA reads, which goes on to say that when situations like this arise, the university’s staff communicates “with relevant legal and law enforcement entities as appropriate.”

“Most of the Chinese students here, the problem with them is just their lack of knowledge of the law system,” Gong said. “They know there’s a way you can purchase firearms, but they don’t actually know a lot about the firearms law.”

Contact: mwoodhouse@tucson.com or 573-4235. On Twitter:

@murphywoodhouse

Pima County reporter and Road Runner columnist for the Arizona Daily Star