Gun ownership has exploded in firearms-friendly Texas and nationwide, and people of color are among the market’s fastest-growing segment. But that doesn’t mean shopping for a gun is always an enjoyable experience for these new buyers.
Hosni and Ibrahim Omeis went to gun stores in Plano and Highland Park in May 2020 and days later ended up behind bars, targets of an FBI investigation. How the FBI became interested in the Plano brothers is not clear from available court records. Authorities said the men reportedly smelled like marijuana inside one gun store and spoke Arabic in another.
The Lebanese American men, both in their late 20s at the time, passed a background check and each purchased a 9mm pistol in Highland Park. When questioned days later by the FBI, the brothers admitted using marijuana. That resulted in criminal charges for lying on a federal form.
When they bought the guns, the brothers signed a required form stating they were not unlawful drug users. The form also asks gun buyers other questions, such as whether they are felons, convicted domestic abusers or fugitives.
The two were later indicted for being unlawful drug users in possession of a firearm and faced up to a decade in prison.
Their case points to a troubling trend that racial minorities in the U.S. have increasingly complained about: extra scrutiny when shopping for a gun.
The Omeis brothers, both U.S. citizens born in California, pleaded guilty to the drug-gun count and were sentenced June 27 to five years’ probation in federal court in Dallas. They declined to be interviewed following their sentencing, citing a desire to avoid further law enforcement attention. But they acknowledged feeling their ethnicity played a role in their troubles.
The two North Texas gun stores declined to comment. A lawyer for the Beretta Gallery, which has a store in Highland Park Village, said he was unaware of the matter.
“Even if I had knowledge concerning the situation, Beretta U.S.A. would not comment publicly on a matter of law enforcement investigation,” said the attorney, Jeff Reh.
The FBI and U.S. attorney’s office in Dallas also declined to comment on the case.
“The FBI can never initiate an investigation based solely on an individual’s race, ethnicity, national origin, religion, or the exercise of First Amendment rights,” a bureau spokeswoman said. “We will let the judicial proceedings speak for themselves, and do not have additional information to provide at this time.”
The government and the defense are barred by court order from discussing certain details of the case or releasing certain documents due to the involvement of unspecified classified information. It is unclear what those documents would reveal.
Faizan Syed, executive director of the Dallas-Fort-Worth chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations, said investigations of Muslims and people of Middle Eastern descent sometimes originate from gun store employees.
“That’s typically how the FBI gets tipped off about these cases,” he said.
Syed said the FBI could have already been aware of the brothers or may have spoken to a relative of theirs about an unrelated matter.
“And then they found that they bought a gun and had this marijuana incident, and they put the two together to bring federal charges for something that most people think is very minor,” said Syed, of CAIR, a nonprofit Muslim civil rights organization.
Even though about three dozen states including Texas legalized marijuana for medical purposes, possessing the drug remains illegal at the federal level. Arrests of pot users in states that decriminalized the drug, although rare, have occurred. Even smoking a joint in the privacy of your home is a serious federal felony if you own a gun.
The government does not track these prosecutions. The Washington Post, however, requested data and did its own analysis, reporting last month that prosecutions for lying on gun purchase forms are extremely rare.
Federal prosecutors in 2019 filed just 298 cases, The Post found. That same year, about 27 million firearm background checks were performed. The newspaper found similar numbers for 2018. The outcome of the prosecutions was not clear from the data.
Hassled while shopping
Syed said the FBI’s efforts would be better spent monitoring young white men, who have been mostly to blame for mass shootings and other acts of domestic terrorism in the U.S. in recent years.
The Uvalde shooter who killed 19 elementary students and two teachers on May 24 had bought two assault rifles when he turned 18 as well as copious amounts of ammunition. Salvador Ramos, who was Hispanic, did not arouse any suspicions from gun stores.
Since September 2001, the FBI has made it a practice to knock on the doors of ordinary Muslims, Syed said.
“The end result is that you have tens of thousands of Muslims who are on the FBI’s radar who have nothing to do with anything,” Syed said.
Experiencing hassles while shopping for guns is not limited to those of Middle Eastern descent.
“I can speak for Black Americans... some of us go through hell in purchasing a firearm,” said Philip Smith, president of the National African American Gun Association, which has almost 50,000 members nationwide.
The National Rifle Association did not respond to a request for comment about discrimination against gun buyers.
Retailers reported that the number of Black people buying guns was up 58% during the first half of 2020, the largest gain of any demographic, according to the National Shooting Sports Foundation, an industry trade group.
A new study co-authored by a director of the Harvard Youth Violence Prevention Center found Black people accounted for 21% of the estimated 7.5 million people who became first-time gun buyers from January 2019 to April 2021.
Smith, who is based in Atlanta, said some gun stores and gun ranges are “at a minimum hostile to Black folks walking in the door.”
“And they don’t care if you’re a doctor, Barack Obama, the Pope,” he said. “If you’re a person of Black skin…they don’t want you in their store. They don’t want your money. They just don’t care.”
Yafeuh Balogun, founder of the Huey P. Newton Gun Club in Dallas, said that when he goes to gun shows or stores, he tries to dress a “certain way” so he doesn’t appear threatening due to racial stereotypes. He said he still gets “extra looks” from gun store clerks, although it was more frequent when he was younger.
“I would get these types of questions: ‘What do you plan on doing with these weapons?’ ” he said. “The unspoken word is, ‘You’re not supposed to have that.’ ”
For the Omeis brothers, a Facebook status similar to what many others post about civil rights played a role in the investigation.
Hosni Omeis, 30, also a motorcycle enthusiast, attended Lebanese American University and studied business at Los Angeles City College and American University of Beirut, according to his Facebook page. He listed his job as a bartender.
His Facebook page contains funny videos and photos of him with his kitten but also some posts critical of police brutality and racism in the aftermath of the May 2020 killing of George Floyd by a police officer in Minneapolis.
One of those posts was cited by the FBI agent, a counterterrorism specialist, in the complaint.
“A review of the page shows that approximately two hours before attempting to purchase the firearm … multiple videos of weapons and anti-law enforcement rhetoric were posted to the page,” the complaint said. One of those videos was titled, “overzealous cop gets shut down by his sergeant who protects our rights.”
The brothers initially visited the Bullet Trap in Plano while looking for a gun for self-defense, said Hosni Omeis’ attorney, Joey Mongaras, in an interview.
The FBI said the pair smelled of marijuana inside the store, he said. What’s unclear, he added, is whether it was agents, store employees or someone else who noticed the smell. The Omeis brothers decided not to buy anything and later visited the Beretta Gallery, a high-end gun store in Highland Park.
A store employee told the FBI the brothers were “generally talkative, and nothing initially alerted him in any way,” the complaint said.
“However, while the brothers were in the store, they periodically conversed in Arabic in Employee 1′s presence,” the complaint said. “Due to Employee 1′s prior time in Doha [capital of Qatar], he was able to understand some of the conversation the brothers had between themselves in his presence in Arabic. Employee 1 believes that he heard the brothers talking about money in Arabic.”
While in the store, the brothers also mentioned that the gun they liked had a threaded barrel that could accept a silencer, according to the complaint. They each purchased a Beretta handgun and ammunition.
“They were overheard talking about a good starter gun to buy for self-defense,” said Mongaras, the defense attorney. “If you or I were in that store, they [employees] would not have remembered a thing that I said or wanted.”
Such was the case of a white teenager from New York who is accused of gunning down Black shoppers in a murderous rampage at a Buffalo supermarket in May.
Payton Gendron, 18, was evaluated due to mental health concerns last year, but it didn’t stop him from buying AR-style rifles legally. The owner of one gun store that sold a rifle to the teen told The New York Times he didn’t remember him.
“He didn’t stand out — because if he did, I would’ve never sold him the gun,” he told The Times.
Mongaras said nothing in court records indicates the FBI was surveilling or tracking the Omeis brothers or even aware of them before the gun store visits.
Mongaras said Hosni Omeis was also racially profiled two months earlier when Plano police pulled him over — an event used by the FBI to justify the criminal investigation. The officer found less than half a gram of marijuana. A gram is roughly equal to the size of a pen cap.
The stop was made after Hosni Omeis failed to signal a lane change, records show. Mongaras said the Plano officer decided to arrest his client for an invalid driver’s license instead of giving him a ticket. While searching him, the officer found a marijuana joint and a vape pen with THC oil, records show.
Hosni Omeis has a drug possession case in Collin County stemming from that traffic stop that remains pending, court records show. Plano police do not have a policy like in Dallas to not make arrests for less than 2 ounces of weed, as long as no aggravating circumstances apply.
The FBI searched the brothers’ Plano apartment on May 15, 2020, and found the Beretta pistols as well as an unspecified amount of marijuana and drug paraphernalia, the federal complaint said. The brothers agreed to speak with agents and admitted to using marijuana, according to court records. Now they are convicted felons who can’t run for public office or vote or own guns.
Aaron Wiley, a former federal prosecutor who now handles criminal defense, said the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives has jurisdiction over such gun cases.
The FBI’s involvement in the Omeis case, he said, indicates the brothers may have initially been caught up in some kind of terrorism investigation; one that did not pan out. Mongaras said he didn’t know any details about such an investigation.
“It’s highly unlikely the FBI would use their considerable resources to investigate two local stoners reeking of marijuana trying to purchase firearms from gun shops in Plano and Highland Park,” Wiley said.