Criminals use loophole to get guns
Chicago Tribune - 'Straw' buyers enlisted to dodge the Brady Act, authorities say By Mike Dorning, Washington Bureau. Tribune staff reporter Eric Ferkenhoff contributed to this report
The man who is accused of shooting Chicago police detective Joseph M. Airhart Jr. capitalized on a simple but increasingly common way to evade gun control laws: He had someone else buy the guns for him.
The quick path that two powerful handguns allegedly made from the counter of a pawn shop in Benton Harbor, Mich., to the hands of Daniel Salley illustrates a critical gap in the nation's approach to controlling guns.
Although Salley was barred from buying a gun because of a domestic violence conviction, he went twice to the same pawn shop to pick out a gun that a female companion then purchased for him, according to a statement the woman gave authorities. A least once, Salley had holstered the gun even before the couple reached their car, according to police.
And so, on Aug. 28, Salley stood in a Chicago Loop apartment with the same two guns, one in each hand, blasting away at a team of Chicago police and FBI agents who had come to arrest him on an armed robbery charge, police say. Airhart, who was shot in the head, still was struggling for his life Saturday in a hospital.
The woman who bought the guns for Salley has not been charged, authorities said.
The so-called straw purchase of guns is "the most significant factor in gun trafficking, without any question," said Jack Killorin, director of the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms' Atlanta field division.
Sometimes, the real buyers walk into the gun store to help with the purchase. Other times, they may wait outside the door. A friend or accomplice with no criminal record easily can pass the federal Brady Act's required background check, then turn over the gun.
"That, in many ways, is the reality of ... getting a gun in Chicago," said David Hoffman, a local federal prosecutor.
Guns obtained through such straw purchases account for nearly a third of the firearms involved in federal gun trafficking investigations, according to an ATF analysis covering cases handled from 1996 through 1998.
Gun-show debate blurs issue
The passionate and long-running political debate over regulating gun shows has largely obscured the problem of straw purchases. But in many places, including Chicago, criminals are more likely to obtain their weapons in that way than from a gun show, said local and federal firearms agents.
Criminals and gun traffickers long have used straw purchases as a way of disguising their identity in case a gun is recovered by police and attempts are made to trace it. But the practice appears to have grown since the Brady Act cut off convicted criminals' direct access to gun stores, ATF officials and firearms agents said.
Straw purchases are difficult to control. Although in recent years firearms agents have heightened their focus on the problem and developed more sophisticated investigative techniques, it remains difficult to catch people involved in the activity, unless the gun is recovered in a high-profile crime.
Gun control advocates argue the problem underscores the need for more comprehensive laws, including regulation of all secondhand gun sales. Such a system would establish a paper trail, making it easier to catch buyers who act as fronts for others, they say.
Gun rights groups such as the National Rifle Association say that the practice could best be curtailed with more aggressive enforcement of existing laws.
Top penalty rarely given
Although the maximum federal penalty for participating in a straw purchase is a 10-year prison term, in practice sentencing guidelines call for only 2 to 2 1/2 years' imprisonment for someone caught providing as many as a dozen guns to a convicted felon. That's half the mandatory (5-year) minimum for possession of 5 grams of crack cocaine.
Straw purchases--the term derives from the expression "straw man," a person whose identity is used as a disguise--have been a factor in some of the most prominent local and national shooting tragedies.
The .357-caliber revolver used to kill Chicago Police Officer Michael Ceriale was bought by a South Side man who paid a cocaine debt to the Gangster Disciples by serving as a front for some of their gun purchases.
Two shotguns and a rifle used in the 1999 Columbine High School massacre were purchased by Dylan Klebold's 18-year-old girlfriend. Still 17, Klebold wasn't old enough to buy the weapons, but under state law it was legal for his girlfriend to not only buy the guns but also to give them to a minor.
In the Chicago area, someone with a clean record typically earns $50 to $100 per gun as a straw purchaser, according to local ATF agents and members of the Chicago Police Department's anti-gun enforcement unit.
Hard to convict `fronts'
Because of the nation's hodgepodge of state and federal gun laws, it's difficult to catch and convict people who act as fronts to buy weapons for felons. In essence, the authorities must prove the straw purchaser knew he or she was buying a gun for someone who couldn't pass the background check and deliberately flouted the laws.
The Brady Act requires only licensed gun dealers to do buyer background checks and keep sales records on firearms.
But there are no federal checks on weapons that change hands at a gun show, a meeting on the street, via newspaper ad or the Internet. In most states, the original owner need not even keep a record when selling a gun secondhand or otherwise disposing of a firearm, although Illinois is an exception.
"You're looking at the path of least resistance," said Terry Austin, chief of the ATF's National Firearms Tracing Center. "If you've got someone who has a gun store down the street from him and he knows he can pay some mutt $50 to go get him a gun, he'll do it. He's not going to drive two hours on a Saturday to go to a gun show."
In Chicago, where handgun sales are banned, straw buyers usually make their purchases at gun shops in suburban Cook County, although more of them now appear to be traveling to Downstate Illinois and neighboring states, said Chicago police and federal firearms agents.
Often, gang members will drive their accomplices to a gun store to make weapons purchases, police said. They also frequently help a potential straw buyer fill out an application for an Illinois Firearm Owner's Identification Card, which is required to buy guns in the state.
Typically, authorities only identify straw buyers if repeated transactions show patterns, such as frequent purchases of inexpensive, easy-to-conceal semi-automatic pistols popular with criminals. Likewise, firearms agents may begin an investigation if guns originally bought by the same person start turning up too often in crimes.
Also, gun store managers may alert authorities when a clerk realizes a straw purchase is about to take place and delay the sale until firearms agents can set up surveillance. Several ATF agents said that such operations account for a large portion of the agency's successful prosecutions. Charges otherwise can be difficult to prove in court.
A `tough law to charge'
There is no federal law against buying a gun from a dealer one day and then selling it secondhand the next. It is only illegal when the nominal buyer never intends to own the gun and acts purely as a front. The federal form that gun purchasers must complete requires them to certify that they are the "actual buyer" of the weapon.
"It's a really tough law to charge," said one veteran ATF agent and field supervisor, who asked not to be identified. "Basically, you have to catch somebody in the act. You see them in the gun store, see them buy the gun and then go out to the car and give it to someone else."
"Basically, short of a confession, you won't be able to prove that case," said Mike Smith, supervisor of the gang prosecution unit in the Cook County state's attorney's office.
Police in Illinois have an advantage because they usually can arrest a suspect for violating the state record-keeping statute, which also requires that gun owners only sell their weapons to holders of an Illinois Firearm Owner's Identification Card. That also allows police more leverage in conducting an interrogation, officers said.
"Here, at least you've got them in your cuffs, you've got them in your house. They're going to jail. That gets you in the door right then and there. You're not out on the street talking to them for two hours. If we were in Kentucky or Mississippi, I don't know what we'd do," said an officer in the Chicago Police Department's gun unit who asked not to be identified.
Still, more often than not, Chicago police cannot make a charge of straw purchasing stick, under either federal law or a similar state law. One officer closely involved in gun cases estimated that such a charge is filed in only about one-tenth of suspected cases. Mostly, offenders are prosecuted on misdemeanor charges of violating the record-keeping statute, officers and prosecutors said.
Curtailing straw purchases
As a way of curtailing straw purchases, some gun-control advocates argue for a federal law that would limit firearm purchases to one handgun per month. Each buyer's ability to supply guns then would be reduced. After Virginia passed such a law in 1993, the number of crime guns traced back to sales originally made in the state dropped dramatically.
But the National Rifle Association and other gun-rights groups oppose the step as an inconvenience to legitimate firearms purchasers and a restriction of their rights.
Some others suggest tougher penalties.
"This is going to be a crime that, for a certain number of people, deterrence will work. But the kind of sentences you get for a classic straw purchase don't have that big an effect," said Hoffman, the federal prosecutor.
Hoffman said the relatively small sentences also influence federal agents' willingness to devote limited resources to pursue cases. In particular, he said, it may guide decisions when faced with making a choice on whether to use an informant to pursue gun investigations versus drug-dealing cases.
"Sometimes, you'll hear it's not worth it. We can use an informant for a drug case, and the sentence will be several times higher," Hoffman said.
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