Attempt to curb illegal gun sales is stalling here

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Nearly a year and a half after U.S. Attorney David J. Hickton announced a crackdown on illegal gun ownership, in particular so-called straw purchases, momentum has stalled locally, with only three new indictments since that initial announcement and none so far this year.

Straw purchasing is the illegal act of buying a firearm for someone else, often because a criminal record prevents that person from owning a weapon. The practice recently made the national spotlight when the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that straw purchasing is illegal even if the eventual recipient of the gun is legally entitled to own it.

In February 2013, Mr. Hickton and representatives of the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives announced the indictments of 17 people on various gun charges, including felony possession and making false statements to a gun dealer. Of the seven who were charged in federal court, all were eventually convicted.

Since then, only three more people have been charged in connection with straw purchases, according to the U.S. Attorney'‍s Office.

Mr. Hickton described the announcement last year as a deterrent -- the hope being that potential straw buyers would take notice and refrain from illegal activity. He nevertheless acknowledged that straw purchasing remains a "huge problem" among the overall issue of illegal gun ownership, adding that "the number of guns in the hands of felons is troubling."

A straw purchase can be stopped at the source sometimes if a firearms dealer becomes suspicious, according to Mr. Hickton, but this is not usually the case. Part of the problem is that "straw purchasing is not often a reported crime," said Steve Bartholomew, an ATF special agent. "Usually law enforcement only becomes aware of a straw purchase after a gun becomes involved in an investigation."

Such was the case with Asia M. Harris, who was indicted in November on charges of making false statements during the purchase of a firearm and aiding and abetting the possession of a firearm by a felon.

During her change-of-plea hearing last month, the prosecution claimed to have found the handgun in question while executing a search warrant at the house that Ms. Harris shares with convicted felon Mark Brazil. Ms. Harris allegedly told a federal agent at the scene that she had purchased the handgun on behalf of Brazil, a statement she later denied in electing to go to trial before opting to change her plea to guilty.

According to Mr. Bartholomew, all guns obtained by law enforcement during investigations -- about 1,000 in Allegheny County each year -- are handed over to the ATF for processing. From there, he said, several indicators point to whether a gun has been straw-purchased.

One such red flag is "time of crime," meaning the time between a gun'‍s purchase and its use in a crime. A short "time of crime" indicates a possible straw purchase, suggesting the gun was obtained to carry out a premeditated crime.

Another indicator is whether the serial number on the gun, required by law as a means to trace the weapon, has been obliterated. Mr. Bartholomew said ATF has developed a laboratory method to restore destroyed serial numbers.

As for what the recent Supreme Court decision means for law enforcement, Dean Carro, emeritus professor of law at the University of Akron, described it as merely "closing up a gap" in the federal statute, ultimately having little effect on enforcement.

Mr. Hickton took a more optimistic line, saying the decision "tightened the law our way."

"The decision made it clearer that even if the recipient is a potential gun owner, if it is a straw purchase then it is a violation of the law," he said.


Albert Anderson: aanderson@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1454.

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