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'Straw Purchases' Get Keen Eye In Gun Debate


This is WEEKEND EDITION, from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon. The U.S. Congress reached a compromise this week. If that's not surprising enough, the issue is guns.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: On this vote the yeas are 68, the nays are 31. Three-fifths of the senators duly chosen and sworn, having voted in the affirmative, the motion is agreed to.

SIMON: The Senate has voted to begin a debate on legislation that would expand a variety of gun control measures including background checks, and at least some of the measures have attracted bipartisan support. President Obama visited Hartford, Conn., this week. He called on the American people to demand legislation.


SIMON: Now, buying a gun in a way that evades a background check is often called a straw purchase. Officer Bradley Fox of Plymouth Township, Pa., was killed with a gun that was purchased that way. He had been a police officer for five years. He was 34 years old, married and the father of a daughter.

JOSEPH LAWRENCE: I can tell you that Brad was a, what some people would call a true American hero.

SIMON: Joseph Lawrence is Plymouth Township's chief of police.

LAWRENCE: Took two tours in Iraq, in the Middle East and - with the Marine Corps, then became a police officer; was dedicated to the department, and to his family. He was a good family man, and he was someone with - always had a smile on his face.

SIMON: Officer Fox and his wife were expecting a second child when he reported for work Sept. 13, 2012.

LAWRENCE: Yeah, that was a day that the way I say it, changed the so-called normal day of Plymouth Township and my department.

SIMON: There was a routine traffic accident on that day, and Officer Fox responded. According to police, a man named Andrew Thomas swerved around the accident scene and sped away. Officer Fox chased after him, first in his police car, then on foot. He called for backup. But before officers could arrive, he was ambushed.

LAWRENCE: The radio transmissions that came after that were obvious that something had happened. The last thing that anybody heard from Brad was "show me your hands," and that's all we heard.


SIMON: After Andrew Thomas shot and killed Bradley Fox, he turned his gun, a 9-millimeter Beretta, on himself. Thomas was 44 years old, and had once been convicted of forgery. A routine background check would have prevented him from purchasing a gun in Pennsylvania. Risa Vetri Ferman is the district attorney for Montgomery County, Pa.

RISA VETRI FERMAN: The killer was able to purchase guns through an intermediary, though another individual who was willing to go into gun stores, make purchases of firearms and then sell them illegally to him. So over the course of several months, we were able to document nine sales, nine different firearms. At this point, we have only recovered the one, the murder weapon. But there are actually still other weapons out somewhere in the community, hidden somewhere.

SIMON: The man would buy guns from a dealer and then hand them over to Andrew Thomas in the parking lot for $500 each. He's pleaded guilty to multiple gun charges and is currently awaiting sentencing. According to the police, Andrew Thomas told the straw purchaser that he, quote, "wasn't ever going back to jail, and that he wouldn't go alive." Again, District Attorney Ferman:

FERMAN: That individual was the worse kind of someone to have a gun in his hands because he's prevented from having it legally. He's a known criminal and he knows that if he's stopped and arrested he's going back to jail, a place he doesn't want to go. So he had nothing to lose and he took out a police officer.

SIMON: In a straw purchase, somebody with a clean record buys guns for someone who wouldn't pass a background check. Such sales are already outlawed by federal and state statutes but many police believe penalties are so weak people will risk it to sell guns for top dollar to criminals who otherwise couldn't get them. And when a convicted felon ambushed and killed two firefighters in Webster, New York last December, police discovered the murder weapon was a straw purchase bought by a neighbor. Mike Bouchard is a former assistant director at the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives and is now a consultant for Security Dynamics. He says current penalties are to light to deter sales.

MIKE BOUCHARD: The ATF form 4473 is the document that you complete when you purchase a gun from a gun dealer and you swear that you're purchasing the gun for yourself. So if you falsify that, that's a federal crime, however, it's treated much like a paper crime or lying on a form.

SIMON: In other words, is that gun winds up being used in the commission of a crime, it may not necessarily be a serious or consequential as that charge sounds.

BOUCHARD: Correct. If you bought that gun from a gun dealer and transferred it to somebody who used it in the crime, if you did not know they were going to use it in a crime, you will not be prosecuted for the ultimate crime such as a homicide or an assault. You would only be prosecuted for the crime of lying on the form if the government could prove that at the time you bought it you intended to buy it for someone else and deceive the government.

SIMON: What makes that so difficult to prove?

BOUCHARD: You have to prove intent and what many people will do is they'll buy the gun as a straw purchaser, hold it for a day or two and then transfer it or sell it to another individual. When it turns up in a trace, used in a crime, when ATF or law enforcement asks that person what happened to the gun, they will either say it was stolen, I misplaced it, or they may just say, I needed some money quick. I just went and sold it. And there is not a thing you can do about that.

SIMON: The legislation before the Senate increases penalties for straw purchases and gun trafficking. It had bipartisan support and this week, senators announced that the National Rifle Association has agreed to the language in the bill. But because straw purchasing is already illegal, some have questioned whether the problem needs new law or better enforcement of the old ones. Republican Sen. John Cornyn of Texas told a hearing room...

SEN. JOHN CORNYN: My concern is that this bill is a solution in search of a problem. Straw purchasing for purpose of directing guns to people who cannot legally attain them is already a crime. And so we double down and say this time we really mean it, when in fact the real problem I think in many instances is the lack of prosecution of existing crimes by the Department of Justice.

SIMON: But Mike Bouchard, the former ATF agent, says the way laws are written makes enforcement difficult.

BOUCHARD: You know, you could buy straw purchase guns by 20 or 30 over six, eight months, nine months to a year and transfer those to other people and if the government can't prove you intended to buy those for other people at the time you made the purchase, what you really have is a gun trafficker, yet you are stuck having a very difficult time arresting that person because he can't prove what their intent was at the time.

SIMON: There are other ways to get guns, aren't they? I mean, if you are a hardened criminal?

BOUCHARD: No legislation is going to stop a criminal from getting a gun, and anybody who says it will is wrong. Criminals will get a gun no matter what they have to do. They'll steal it. They'll borrow it. They'll have someone else buy it for them. What needs to be done is to make it much more difficult for them to obtain a gun and right now, it's very easy to just have a girlfriend, a friend, someone else who is not prohibited to go buy it for me, transfer it to me. There is really nothing that can happen to you. So if we can take out a few of those from the equation, there would be that many fewer people, violent criminals who get guns.

SIMON: So the intent for this would be to force somebody who's a hardened criminal to undertake six or eight different ways to try and acquire the gun, not just one or two, hoping that each successive round makes it more difficult.

BOUCHARD: Right, and if it's something where someone's trying to get a gun in the heat of the moment, you know, may take three or four days. Well, by then the might have cooled off. And also if people had to have a background check when they transferred a gun regardless from a dealer or anywhere else, it tends to make you, as an individual transferring the gun, ask a few questions, like, why are you asking me to buy it? Why don't you go buy it yourself? Why would you come and ask me to do something like that? Is there a reason for that?

SIMON: After Officer Bradley Fox died, the state of Pennsylvania quickly passed what's known as the Brad Fox Law. Republican governor Tom Corbett signed.

GOV. TOM CORBETT: He died at the hands of a felon, somebody who is not, and should never have a firearm.

SIMON: In Pennsylvania, people convicted of multiple straw purchases now face at least five years in jail. Police Chief, Joseph Lawrence, supports the law and hopes it will discourage straw purchases. He remembers the day that he wishes had never happened.

LAWRENCE: Basically, that day changed the lives of my 45-person department and it's affected us since that day as well as his family and the other law enforcement community around us.

SIMON: Help us understand that if you can please.

LAWRENCE: I mean, I've been a police officer for 35 years now and every day you know that something bad could happen, as well as something good. And I think this incident brought it more to the forefront of some of my younger officers who, even though they know the dangers of the job, have never been exposed to it. The danger's always there in one way or another and sometimes you don't feel it. Brad came to work that morning at seven o'clock in the morning expecting to go home to his wife and baby girl and that didn't happen.

SIMON: This March, Lindsey Fox gave birth to the child she was carrying when her husband gave his life in the line of duty. Their son is named Bradley Fox Jr.


SIMON: Immigration reform is also high on the legislative calendar and tomorrow Rachel Martin speaks with Congressman Lou Barletta of Pennsylvania, a Republican who's an outspoken opponent of attempts to provide a path to citizenship for illegal immigrants. That's tomorrow morning on WEEKEND EDITION SUNDAY. You're listening to NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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