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Scales of Justice (copy)

An East Side Madison man whose 44 guns were seized as part of an investigation into illegal weapons sales pleaded guilty Thursday to selling firearms without a federal license.

Thomas Caldwell, 68, faces up to five years in prison when he is sentenced on Nov. 1 by U.S. District Judge James Peterson.

Under an agreement with prosecutors, Caldwell will not seek the return of the weapons, which he can no longer have as a felon. Instead, the government agreed to send them to a federally licensed gun dealer, who will sell them and provide Caldwell, who lives on Social Security and disability payments, with the proceeds.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Timothy O’Shea said Caldwell sold dozens of guns, some of which were found in the hands of criminals, between 2015 and 2018, after being given an official warning in December 2015 by the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives not to sell firearms without a federal license.

One of the guns was used in the shooting death in February of a Chicago police commander. Three days after that shooting, ATF agents seized all of Caldwell’s remaining guns from his Martha Lane home.

Last month, Caldwell told the Wisconsin State Journal that he would plead guilty to the charge because he felt he had no other choice, even though he said he believed that investigators exaggerated the evidence they had against him.

In court Thursday, Caldwell showed little reservation to pleading guilty.

“I bought and sold firearms without a license, and without a license I was selling them,” Caldwell said when asked by Peterson to say what he had done. “I didn’t think I was doing it as a business,” he said, but admitted that he knew after being told by ATF to stop that what he was doing was illegal.

O’Shea estimated that Caldwell made $19,000 from selling guns after he was told by ATF to stop in December 2015.

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Ed Treleven is the courts reporter for the Wisconsin State Journal.