Mayor Nutter's Crackdown on Lost/Stolen Guns Comes Under Heavy Fire

By Michael Alan Goldberg
Add Comment Add Comment | Comments: 12 | Posted Mar. 6, 2012

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At first glance, that doesn’t appear to be the case.

Three-and-a-half years after being implemented, not one single person in Philadelphia has been prosecuted under the lost/stolen ordinance. In fact, no one in the entire state has been prosecuted under similar laws. Of course, that’s primarily because of the questions surrounding the legitimacy of the ordinances and the reticence to send a test case up the legal chain and watch a court strike down the law entirely. In fact, after Nutter signed the law, then-District Attorney Lynne Abraham stated that she would not enforce the law because it was unconstitutional.

A handful of other states—including New York, New Jersey, Ohio and Massachusetts—have mandatory state lost/stolen laws, so there are no concerns about pre-emption there, yet proponents of the laws cite only two cases in the entire country in which someone’s been prosecuted under lost/stolen (both occurred in Cleveland, once in 1996 and the other in 2001).

The problem is that it remains exceptionally difficult to prove because even a mildly savvy straw purchaser can still easily wiggle out of any interrogation by claiming they didn’t know the weapon was lost or stolen.

“They got smarter,” laments PPD Capt. Fran Healy, special advisor to Commissioner Charles Ramsey. “Instead of saying, ‘I lost it two years ago,’ they’re saying, ‘Oh, I thought it was in my house ...’”

Another issue: To date, no academic or law-enforcement studies exist that demonstrate the impact of lost/stolen laws on straw purchases. “I don’t know anybody who has studied that,” confirms Daniel Webster, co-director of the Johns Hopkins Center for Gun Policy and Research.

Add to that the fact that the Pennsylvania Uniform Firearms Act already provides serious penalties for straw purchasers. According to the act, anyone who knowingly sells or otherwise transfers a firearm to someone ineligible to possess a firearm commits a third-degree felony. Straws can be charged with illegal transfer of firearms, and get up to seven years in jail. If that’s not going to deter a would-be straw purchaser, why would the possibility of violating a Philadelphia code ordinance—an arrestable offense, but in the grand scheme of things equivalent to only a summary offense—make a difference?

According to several law-enforcement officials, there are a couple of compelling reasons.

The first is the idea that some not-so-bright gun traffickers think that they can outsmart the system by preemptively reporting firearms as lost or stolen to steer attention away from their illicit activities. “Well, guess what? You do that two or three times and your local law enforcement are gonna get the picture of who you are and what you’re doing,” says Healy, saying that the red flag spurs police to open an investigation. “I can see losing one gun in a year, things happen. But four or five or more? Are they falling out of your pocket? That’s one of the benefits of the law—I’ll be able to identify somebody who’s trying to play cute.”

The second reason—says one high-ranking Philadelphia law-enforcement official with extensive knowledge of the investigation and prosecution of straw purchasers, who spoke to PW on condition of anonymity—is that in practice, the ordinance is employed more often as a leveraging tool to get a confession from the straw, helping to build a case for the third-degree felony charge. Perhaps they’ve already caught a perp with the firearm and want to shut down the source. Or they need information about who the straw gave the gun to, particularly if the gun in question was recovered at a crime scene, such as a homicide, and there are no suspects.

The source explains that that investigative approach has to do with who the straw purchasers mostly are. Typically, they’re a girlfriend—or sometimes a family member—of the felon, and they’ve been sweet-talked, intimidated or outright threatened to make the purchase. Often, they’re addicts who trade guns for drugs, according to the source. When investigators trace the gun back to them, they’ll give the “It was stolen months ago” line. Without the ordinance, says the source, investigators couldn’t do much. But with the ordinance, law enforcement can threaten an immediate arrest for failure to report the gun stolen. It’s a means to flip a suspect, to get them to tell the truth.

“By their nature they’re all first-time offenders, because otherwise they couldn’t buy a gun,” the source says. “If this was a hardened criminal they’d say, ‘Fuck you, I’ll plead guilty [to the lost/stolen ordinance] and be done with it. But to a person that’s never been arrested or convicted before, never seen the inside of a jail, and maybe been pressured into this transaction in the first place, we can say, ‘Hey, we got you, you lied.’ They’re scared. And sometimes that’s when they’ll admit what they did.”

Reading Police Chief William Heim, one of the state’s most outspoken law-enforcement proponents of the lost/stolen ordinances, confirms the tactic.

“Even if we don’t wind up charging someone with the ordinance, a lot of times just having the ability to talk to someone about them possibly being charged can yield information that might lead to a prosecution down the line,” Heim says.

“Sometimes you detain somebody on a lesser crime that we can prove but we know they committed a more heinous crime but we can’t get the probable cause to go to the next level,” he continues. “If you can get them talking ... we solve more crimes from people talking than we do from physical evidence.”

Law enforcement insists it works. According to numbers provided by the state Attorney General’s Office, as of the last week in February the Philadelphia Gun Violence Task Force—a team of detectives and prosecutors established in December 2006 to go after straw purchasers and other gun traffickers—have opened 2,099 investigations, seized 1,521 illegally owned guns, made 677 arrests, and have an annual conviction rate consistently over 90 percent (the conviction rate on illegal transfer or illegal possession of firearms was 95 percent in 2011).

Still, no law-enforcement officials who spoke with PW could cite a single case in which the use of the lost/stolen ordinance as an investigative tool led to a straw purchaser being convicted on an illegal transfer of firearms charge.

Saying he doesn’t want to give away “too many investigative tricks of the trade,” Heim notes there’s no central database with that data set, or any formal studies, it’s just a matter of taking law enforcement’s word for it.

“These ordinances are just a couple of years old so you’d have to give it some time until you can see the proper analysis,” says Heim. “But certainly, if you don’t try this kind of thing and think outside of the box, you’re not gonna get any changes [in gun crime]. What’s the harm?”

But that’s not good enough for Stolfer.

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COMMENTS

Comments 1 - 12 of 12
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1. Ed said... on Mar 7, 2012 at 04:19AM

“The article states, "If the bill makes it to Gov. Corbett’s desk, no one’s sure if he’ll sign it. Given his pro-gun track record, though, it seems a safe bet. Corbett’s office did not respond to requests for comment."

If you search the web loking for "Attorney General Corbett's Letter to Adams County DA, explaining the illegality of such laws". You will see a letter written by Tom Corbin, written when he's was Attorney General for the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania.

With Tom's past opinion regarding lost and stolen and other local gun laws, I belive that overnor Corbett would sign this bill ASAP.”

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2. Jim said... on Mar 7, 2012 at 10:05AM

“Ed - you skipped past the part where the former Philly DA said the same thing. And, notice that the politician from Philly (Farnese) admits the ordinances are illegal (if the law penalizes municipalities for illegal gun ordinances, lost/stolen ordinance is repealed, i.e. it is illegal).

If you break the law, even a law with which you don't necessarily agree, you stand the possibility of losing property (pay a fine) or liberty (go to jail) or even your life if it's a serious enough crime. What makes the city of Philadelphia so special that their politicians shouldn't be subjected to the same rules as you and me?”

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3. Robert said... on Mar 7, 2012 at 10:41AM

“Mr. Goldberg,

I want to commend you on a very fair and thought provoking piece of Journalism. It sounds like the police might have something that works and it's just a matter of convincing justifiably wary gun owners. I do not own a gun but like Mr. Stolfer I believe in the 2nd Amendment and most articles I read about guns are full of attacks and name calling from both sides. This article is refreshing and it gives the possibility that the compromise the Mayor is looking for can be reached if both sides try to work together.”

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4. kliffee said... on Mar 7, 2012 at 12:10PM

“Seriously, Mr. Stolfter. Who loses their gun? What, you dropped it on the way to the supermarket? Reporting a missing or stolen gun is right for the safety of society. Only people who own guns illegally would not report a missing/stolen gun. There is no better way possible to deter criminals from getting their hands on guns. And if a person who is selling guns to people they shouldn't and they repeatedly report their guns 'lost' or stolen, then we obviously need to keep an eye on this person.”

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5. Anonymous said... on Mar 7, 2012 at 04:24PM

“So the City of Philadelphia and its do as I say mayor, who rather than setting an example of lawfullness, pass stunt illegal laws that repulsed even gun-grabber Lynne Abraham, don't arrest and prosecute anyone fearing the stunt will be exposed, and it's all OK, 'cause they said just the right PC words.
Wait till this new law passes; you'll really hear whining.”

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6. louie said... on Mar 8, 2012 at 09:36AM

“kliffee,

I suggest you pose your question to the 50 or so Philly PD officers(?) that "claim" to have lost their dept.-issued weapons.

These so-called "law-enforcement professionals" sure have alot of excuses for "stolen" and "lost" weapons.

You want to deter criminals?

How about "Truth In Sentencing," for starters. Take a peek at the lengthy records of the half-dozen thugs that shot down PPD officers over the past several years. Every one of 'em has a record as long as their arm, yet they were parrolled, and allowed to kill Philly Police officers.

What say you, genius?”

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7. kliffee said... on Mar 8, 2012 at 05:33PM

“I'm missing your point, Louie. Police officers should have to report a 'lost' gun, too. These criminals who have a lengthy record shouldn't have been on the streets or with guns. Where did they get their guns? Most definitely from straw purchases. What, you don't think we should be responsible with our guns and report if they are stolen or lost?”

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8. MG said... on Mar 8, 2012 at 09:07PM

“Good article that basically presents both sides of the issue including the general ineffective nature of this current local ordinance on illegal straw purchases, the overly aggressive even paranoid effect by Stolfer to get it off the books (really 1 case justifies his point?), and efforts to try to find some common ground.

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9. Anonymous said... on Mar 9, 2012 at 10:29PM

“There is no gun registration in Pennsylvania which would establish any presumption of gun ownership. And regardless, thanks to the Fifth Amendment, any accused "gun loser" may refuse to answer police questions about the recovered gun.

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10. Anonymous said... on Mar 9, 2012 at 10:38PM

“Cute how you substituted "ineffective" for "illegal."
Are there any other illegal laws you want to defend?

“Good article that basically presents both sides of the issue including the general ineffective nature of this current local ordinance on illegal straw purchases,"”

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11. Anon said... on Mar 12, 2012 at 11:12AM

““I wish guns had never been invented,” he says, “because if there were no guns, there would be no war, and once you’ve been in war ... friends of mine didn’t come home.”

Yes, war is hell, but people have been going to war and killing each other since long before guns were invented. Just sayin'”

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12. Louie said... on Mar 14, 2012 at 11:50AM

“kliffee,

What 'Should be,' and 'What is,' are two different things. Please remove your rose-colored glasses.

PPD officers(?) SHOULD patrol the City. They DON'T!

PPD officers(?) SHOULD be PRO-active; they're not. They're RE-active. Well, sometimes.

A convict, convicted of over a dozen violent crimes SHOULD NOT BE PAROLED, but he was. RESULT...One dead PPD officer.

Every PPD officer shot and killed over the past 7 years was gunned down by a violent criminal who has a violent criminal record. How'd they get out of prison?

Philly courts are notorious for plea bargaining with violent criminals, who are responsible for many, many cases of violent crime. This is FACT.

Soft on crime and criminals.

Bore-ass harassment of law-abiding citizens.

And you tell me that Nutter and Ramsey don't have an Anti-Gun agenda?

C'mon, man, wake up!

Look at the Occupy A-holes! Nutter had no problem paying out well over a million dollars to babysit these freaks, instead of hiring more cops.”

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