The Brady Campaign puts a Philadelphia shop on its list of the 10 worst gun dealers in America.
When Lauretha Vaird responded to a bank alarm in Feltonville, she walked into death. A slug from a .380 semiautomatic handgun tore through her liver and the arteries leading to her heart.
She fell facedown on the floor, where she made what one witness termed "a crying type of sound, a hurt sound." Vaird was the first female police officer in Philadelphia's history to die in the line of duty.
The trajectories that brought three bank robbers, a few tellers and Vaird together on Jan. 2, 1996, resulted in a closely observed trial. Two of the culprits received life sentences, while the shooter got the death penalty. But one crime associated with Vaird's murder went pretty much unpublicized and unpunished.
The handgun used to slay the 43-year-old officer--a nine-year veteran of the force and a single mother of two--was obtained through a "straw purchase."
Generally, only people involved in the criminal justice system or the gun industry know the term, but a straw purchase occurs when one person buys a gun and either gives or sells it to someone who can't legally buy firearms himself. In straw purchases, criminals and juveniles usually end up with the weapons.
Most investigators say straw purchasers are responsible for about 50 percent of illegal gun-trafficking investigations. Drug dealers, robbers and scallywags of every stripe enlist people without criminal records to walk into gun stores, fill out the required paperwork and pass the background check they can't pass themselves.
Usually, the straw man earns less than $100 per transaction--so no one's getting rich here. But sometimes money doesn't matter. Girlfriends and wives often break the law for the bad guys they love, risking a third-degree felony conviction and a seven-year jail sentence to keep their man fully armed.
As might be expected, the phenomenon provokes heated debate.
Antigun networks want gun manufacturers and gun dealers to take more responsibility for stopping straw purchasers. Pro-gun groups say it's law enforcement's job. And police tread a kind of middle ground. They point out how difficult it can be for even a conscientious dealer to detect a smooth straw purchaser but allow that gun sellers play a significant role (See "A Legal Solution?" p. 28).
The issue of straw purchasing holds a certain urgency in Philadelphia. Handguns are by far the most prevalent weapon in homicides here. And rightly or wrongly, America's best-known gun control group has singled out Philadelphia's most prominent gun shop for criticism.
The Brady Campaign, named after Jim Brady, the press secretary who was shot in the assassination attempt on Ronald Reagan, plays yin to the National Rifle Association's yang. This past July the group took a particularly controversial step and released a list of what it terms the "Ten Worst 'Bad Apple' Gun Dealers in America."
Colosimo's Inc., at 933 Spring Garden St., was fifth on the list, angering the shop's irascible seventysomething owner, Jim Colosimo.
Reached by phone in Florida, where he was on business, Colosimo talked for nearly half an hour but refused to answer questions until he could speak to his lawyer. Colosimo never called back or returned further calls.
Suffice to say, Colosimo believes he's always gone beyond the requirements of the law to establish that his customers are on the up and up, so his shop's appearance on the list--after 50 years in the business--pained him.
The signs out front suggest Colosimo's serves law enforcement first and foremost.