“The premise here is that lost and stolen laws can actually stop the straw purchaser—what cases have they used this in?” he says. “This has been happening, but when they testify before the Legislature they have no documentation that they’ve used this in that fashion? They’re saying, ‘We’re using it but we can’t prove it?’ That doesn’t work for me. Show me.”
Stolfer allows that if someone can show him proof the ordinances work, he might consider supporting a compromise that lets lost/stolen stand but works in some protections, such as requiring the establishment of criminal intent, or the means to hold prosecutors criminally and civilly liable if they abuse the law.
But he’s got a better idea for going after straw purchasers, one that doesn’t risk criminalizing law-abiding gun owners: Strictly enforce the laws already on the books—primarily the law against the illegal transfer of firearms—against straw purchases. Despite the fact that lost/stolen proponents insist they need the ordinance to build a case for that charge, Stolfer believes that the threat of a maximum seven-year sentence—plus good police work that builds a case against straw purchasers via fingerprints, time-to-crime (the time between when the gun was purchased and when it was used in a crime), video evidence from gun stores, witnesses and other potential evidence—should be enough to get a confession or conviction.
And then, he says, nail ’em to the wall with a five-year mandatory minimum sentence. “No plea bargain, no parole, no sob stories,” he says. “That gets around town fast. That makes people think twice.”
Stolfer says mandatory minimums are crucial because straw purchasers seem to get off easy. State Rep. Metcalfe, HB 1523’s prime sponsor, agrees. “When you look at statistics, a lot of the Philadelphia judges have been very lax in using the hammer of justice on criminals out there,” Metcalfe says from his Cranberry Township office.
The Philadelphia law-enforcement source acknowledges that lighter sentences are often the norm, but there are good reasons for that. Straws typically have clean records. There are often mitigating circumstances, especially when it comes to female straws who have been intimidated, abused or forced to purchase the weapons. And straws are frequently offered plea deals if they agree to cooperate in identifying the felon they supplied (and testify against them in court). Straws typically receive two years or less, instead of the possible seven years.
“I don’t wanna crucify someone who’s been traumatized and who has cooperated,” the source says. “Most of the people who engage in straw purchases, their lives are severely disrupted and they do significant time in jail.”
And calls for mandatory minimum sentences are typically met with resistance from myriad groups that believe in rehabilitation over incarceration.
Still, the source says that in terms of a deterrent, mandatory minimums for straws would be “an overnight game-changer” in combating gun crime.
Lost/stolen proponents will have an opportunity to make their case to skeptical legislators in Harrisburg as HB 1523 winds its way through the General Assembly.
“Nobody’s above the law,” says Metcalfe. “Just because somebody’s elected mayor of Philadelphia doesn’t mean that they can pass ordinances or execute policies that conflict with state law.”
Nacheman is resigned to the notion that 1523 will probably pass the House, but he’s optimistic that it can die in the Senate. “The senate majority leader [Republican Dominic Pileggi] represents Chester and the senate minority leader [Democrat Jay Costa] represents Pittsburgh, places that have passed lost and stolen, and considering the gun violence in those places, if they vote for this it would be a travesty,” says Nacheman.
CeaseFirePA clearly has a friend in Sen. Larry Farnese (D-Philadelphia), a longtime advocate for what he terms “commonsense gun laws.”
“When  gets here I’m gonna go to the mat on this and do everything I possibly can to convince people that this legislation is just bad for Pennsylvania,” says Farnese. “If you take [lost/stolen] away and allow the gun lobby to bully these municipalities into throwing the laws away, then you’re eradicating law enforcement’s ability to deal with the gun epidemic that is just ravaging Philadelphia.”
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.
Nutter’s spokesman Mark McDonald says it’s too early to say what the city will do if HB 1523 becomes law, but notes that the mayor still believes strongly in the lost/stolen ordinance.
“I think it’s fair to say that we’ll defend what the mayor signed,” says McDonald.
But Stolfer insists his cause is just, and that even his biggest foes in Philadelphia may someday come to thank him for it.
“We cannot sacrifice Constitutional freedoms on the misdeeds of others,” he says. “We have to do a better job finding out what works and applying those principles, and not guesswork or theories, and that’s what lost or stolen is. I’m not against all gun laws. I’m for smart gun laws, and the way I see it, this law is not a smart law.”
Letters to the Editor
Letters to the Editor