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Guns... or Not?

A demonstration that the argument that says criminals will get guns despite the harshest gun legislation has merit.

Gun laws being foiled, ATF says ...

Many Dallas criminals buying from traffickers

By Todd Bensman
Dallas Morning News
December 8, 2000

A new analysis of gun crime in Dallas concludes that local criminals are finding ways to thwart federal laws that were designed to keep modern firearms out of their hands.

The third annual Crime Gun Trace Report, released last week by the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms, shows that weapons traffickers are making legal purchases and then reselling weapons illegally to buyers whom the law was supposed to screen out.

More than a third of guns traced from Dallas crimes during 1999 had been purchased within the previous three years from federally licensed dealers; 12 percent of those weapons had been purchased within one year of the crime.

The ATF report, part of the Youth Crime Gun Interdiction Initiative that examined 36 major U.S. cities, including Dallas, also offers concrete evidence that upholds a theory by some law enforcement officials: Local unlicensed traffickers are feeding the appetite of young criminals for the sleekest late-model guns.

The initiative's annual research was ordered by President Clinton in part to determine the effectiveness of the gun control law named after former White House press secretary James Brady, who was shot in an assassination attempt on President Ronald Reagan in 1981. The statistics were compiled from cooperating law enforcement agencies to determine who uses guns in what crimes, which firearms are in vogue and how criminals obtained them.

Dallas' short "time to crime" suggests there are a lot of illegal weapons sales, said Special Agent Tom Crowley, a spokesman for the ATF Dallas division office.

"It's an indication that these guns were purchased for resale on the street," he said. "For the longest time, law enforcement thought that crime guns were mostly stolen, and they're not."

Under the 1998 version of the Brady law, no federally licensed dealer may sell a firearm to a felon, fugitive, mentally ill person, drug addict or undocumented immigrant. All buyers from licensed dealers must undergo an instant electronic background check by the FBI at the store.

It is not illegal, however, for hobbyists and collectors in many states, including Texas, to buy and sell firearms in unregulated secondary markets such as gun shows and newspaper ads. No background check is required for such sales.

Flea markets, gun shows

ATF Special Agent Joseph Patterson of the Dallas field office, who specializes in weapons investigations, said Dallas-area traffickers with clean records are buying large numbers of new guns favored by a younger criminal class. They are selling them at flea markets and gun shows to those who know they can't pass the FBI background check – which is a crime, he said.

"The majority of people can lawfully buy and sell guns. However, it's when they fall into this aspect of dealing in firearms that they cross the line," Agent Patterson said. "And we are seeing a lot of the weapons that are used in crime are guns that are sold through illegal traffickers."

The ATF study showed that most crimes committed in Dallas were illegal possession of firearms or firearms offenses such as domestic violence or threats. But weapons purchased illegally also were used in 58 homicides – more than one-fourth of all killings committed in Dallas last year, the study said.

The government last year and so far this year has prosecuted a number of traffickers for dealing in guns without a federal license, including one Dallas man whose career selling tens of thousands of dollars worth of machine guns was ended in July.

Authorities seized Uzi submachine guns and $20,000 cash from the home of Walter D. Trachsler. He pleaded guilty to possession of three machine guns and is serving a 21-month sentence, federal authorities said.

"We're real concerned that flea markets and gun shows are where private people are selling guns," said Tom Hamilton, the assistant U.S. attorney who prosecuted the case. "The canard is if you're liquidating your private collection, it's not a crime. The problem is when someone's collection is being replenished with 50 guns every month."

Ron Rutledge, owner of McClelland Gun Shop in Dallas, said his industry should police itself and that more gun control laws are not the answer to firearms trafficking.

"We turn down inappropriate sales if there is even any suspicion that there is any kind of deal that's not straight up on the law," Mr. Rutledge said, adding that large orders raise red flags. "The answer is to monitor your business just like your personal life."

In 1998, the Dallas Police Department and ATF informally tried to track the prior year's crime guns but could not determine the time between retail sale and a crime. In 1999, the ATF study for the first time included Dallas.

The ATF report tracked 64,000 guns used in crimes, 2,616 of them in Dallas. It showed that Dallas roughly fit a national pattern in which about 15 percent of guns traced nationally were late-model varieties that were used in crimes within a year of their retail sale to an original purchaser.

An additional 32 percent of those purchased firearms had been sold to someone who used them in a crime within three years.

In Dallas, the averages were slightly lower. About 12 percent of the 2,616 crime guns traced in 1999 had been purchased and resold at least once within a year, and another 24 percent changed hands before crimes within three years, the study concluded.

The study also showed that armed criminals in Dallas and nationally, a third of whom are between the ages of 18 and 24, are not attracted to older weapons legally offered for sale at collectors' shows, flea markets and on the Internet.

Wanted: Hottest models

Instead, many of the youths committing crimes use the latest models of 9 mm semiautomatic handguns, shotguns and Chinese-made 7.62 mm assault rifles. And they're willing to pay black-market prices for them, ATF investigators say.

In Dallas last year, juvenile lawbreakers under 17 years old favored the pocket-sized Raven Arms and Lorcin Engineering .25-caliber semiautomatic pistols, according to the report. Young adults between 18 and 24 liked the Lorcin Engineering .380-caliber semiautomatic pistol and the Ruger 9 mm semiautomatic handgun, the report said.

The latest ATF report appears to have changed few minds in the continuing national political debate over whether to clamp down on secondary-market gun sales, such as weekend gun shows in Dallas, according to people on both sides.

Proposed legislation that would require anyone who sells a gun in secondary markets for any reason to report the sale has stalled in Congress. It has been blocked by pro-gun and industry lobbyists who say law enforcement agencies should focus on catching criminals rather than checking paperwork.

Nancy Hwa, spokeswoman for Handgun Control, Inc., said the latest ATF report demonstrates that gun shows and other markets in states where retailers aren't regulated need more oversight. State legislation limiting unlicensed sellers to one gun a month would be appropriate, she said.

"What you have to do is look at the ways they are getting these guns and choke off those avenues," Ms. Hwa said. "We think this study provides very persuasive data to show that there is a need to shut off these gun show sales."

John Velleco, spokesman for Gun Owners of America, said the ATF study proves the need for less regulation.

"Going after more restrictions to the overwhelming majority of people who never use guns illegally is counterproductive," Mr. Velleco said. "We'd rather have the Dallas police out there chasing real criminals and not spending so much time harassing law-abiding gun owners and doing more paperwork."

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