Shoot the Messenger?

The Brady Campaign puts a Philadelphia shop on its list of the 10 worst gun dealers in America.

By Steve Volk
Add Comment Add Comment | Comments: 0 | Posted Sep. 24, 2003

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Vince calls the Brady list "a wake-up call. A responsible dealer needs to look at numbers like these. Someone needs to say, 'How can we change those numbers?'"

For Vince, focusing on gun manufacturers and dealers merely represents efficiency. In doing this, he echoes violence prevention groups that analyze the chain of events leading to injury and death. The goal? Find the most common link responsible for the most pain, and break it.

"Most straw purchasers, if they are a girlfriend or a buddy or something--they might put one gun into the black market," says Vince. "A significant straw purchaser might buy and sell 10 or 20 guns. But some of these dealers, 2 percent of them, over the years--they supply hundreds of guns that wind up in the black market. That's what we need to look at. We've got to do something about them."

There are telltale signs of a straw purchase, if anyone cares to look for them. A straw man often buys multiple inexpensive guns--$200 cheapos. A guy who walks in and asks to buy more than one of these knockoff handguns should immediately draw suspicion, mainly because collecting such poor quality firearms would be like a car collector acquiring Pintos.

The straw man might do something stupid. Say he comes right into the store with the person he's really buying the gun for, who picks out the weapon and even hands over the money right in front of the sales clerk.

Or perhaps he behaves suspiciously. Say he comes in alone, prices guns, walks outside and returns quickly with money to make a purchase.

Sam Weiner owns American Gun and Locks, formerly Fishtown Lock and Gun. He says he and his employees don't sell to anyone who makes them the slightest bit suspicious, and they won't sell more than one gun to a new customer. "You're not going to come in here cold and buy four guns," says Weiner. "We do our best in here to do things right--and we still get traces. I think it's just part of being in the inner city."

Weiner says he got duped once by a pregnant woman who turned out to be a straw. "She knew guns," he says. "She was comfortable with it, held it properly, talked about how smooth it fired, but she was a fake. What can you do?"

Weiner later learned about the pregnant straw woman, but he wasn't aware of convicted straw man Sylvester Kitchen until this reporter mentioned him. Nor did he seem surprised. Hey, straw purchases happen, and Kitchen picked up 19 guns in his side career, including 12 in roughly two years at Weiner's Fishtown shop. "He must have come in and made everyone feel comfortable," says Weiner.

People on both sides of the debate agree, the most scrupulous storeowner can still get fooled, even if they rigorously follow the law in an industry where not everyone does.

A study released by UCLA researchers this past summer claimed half of gun dealers surveyed were willing to take part in straw purchases. Researchers phoned 120 dealers in 20 major U.S. cities and asked about purchasing a firearm for someone else who "needs me to buy him/her a handgun."

Fifty percent said yes.

Some criticized the scenario the researchers presented as too vague. (It's legal, for instance, to purchase a firearm for someone with no criminal record as a gift.) But the UCLA study also featured a smaller survey, in which 20 dealers were phoned and specifically told the gun's ultimate recipient isn't allowed to own one.

The numbers dropped, but 20 percent still said they'd do it.

Stories occasionally surface about gun dealers going down in stings. A Chicago firearms shop got busted after engaging in numerous illegal transactions, even selling guns to undercover Chi-town cops who said they intended to shoot, you know, like, people. But gun shop owners rarely face arrest or discipline.

According to the Americans for Gun Safety Foundation, federal charges were filed in cases against just 88 gun stores between 2000 and 2002. These are especially paltry numbers considering the 2000 ATF report, "Following the Gun," listed corrupt licensed dealers as the most common source of illegal firearms trafficking.

In Pennsylvania just four licensed firearms dealers were prosecuted between 2000 and 2002. Considering there are roughly 5,000 licensed dealers in the state (and more than 100,000 in the country), storeowners either adhere to the law like Talmudic priests or simply aren't being targeted.

In the 2000 ATF report for Philadelphia, for example, 116 (out of 2,853 total) crime guns couldn't be traced because the wholesaler or retailer had no record of the weapon. That could be the product of sloppy bookkeeping or suggest a gun sold "off the books." Either way, failing to keep accurate records is a misdemeanor punishable by up to one year in prison, but gun sellers almost never face prosecution for the offense.

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