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Laws Ask Gun Dealers to
Weed Out Straw Sales.

Regulations may mean discrimination: dealers say

Written By Alice Hohl - Sunday, July 23, 2000

An obscure set of federal laws against illegal gun dealing and straw sales purchases
that occur when a legal buyer stands in for someone barred from gun ownership
provided authorities a tool to prosecute several suburban gun shops recently.

But the laws seem to ask of gun shop owners something seldom asked of retailers: to
decide whether customers may do something bad with the product, and to avoid selling
the product if they think customers may be up to no good.

Gun shops, such as B&H Sports in Oak Lawn and now Suburban Sporting Goods in
Melrose Park, are being prosecuted by the U.S. Attorney's office because officials who
want guns out of the hands of criminals say federal laws are stricter than state laws.

Under federal law, gun sellers are supposed to keep people from making straw
purchases even though it is legal to buy a gun for someone as a gift or loan someone
money to buy a gun. Not only that, the retailers also are prohibited from distributing
firearms to criminals and gang members if they know the customer intends to use the
guns for criminal purposes.

B&H Sports' owner said during his trial that federal authorities are asking gun sellers to
discriminate against customers based on race or style of dress.

But federal officials said a large number of guns wind up in the hands of convicted felons
and gang members because the criminals simply have someone else buy them the gun
at a legitimate store. They said they are only asking gun shop owners to take
responsibility for weeding out criminals from their customer base.

In all the Chicago-area gun shop indictments, including the one in Oak Lawn,
undercover police officers have said they made it clear during the gun purchase that
they were either buying the gun for a friend who couldn't get a valid gun card, or that they
themselves were going to use the gun in a crime.

One officer said he loudly told his partner, who had no gun card, "Hey dog, this rifle ain't
for me. Where's your loot?" and the partner handed him the money in plain view of
the clerk.

Officers have testified that they dressed in baggy clothes and talked about getting
easy-to-conceal guns and weapons capable of piercing car doors.

Brian Inglese of B&H Sports, as have other gun shop owners, testified he did not
understand the street language the officers used. Inglese, who lives in Lansing, was
found guilty of eight of the 11 charges against him.

Moreover, Inglese's attorneys argued, it is up to the customer to be truthful when filling
out forms that ask who the gun is for and how it will be used.

In each of the sales to the undercover officers, forms presented in court showed that a
man with a valid firearm owner's identification card signed a form saying the gun was for
him and that he was planning to use it for target practice. In each sale, the customer
waited the required three days before picking up the firearm at the store.

But federal laws are written to punish not just the person who misuses the gun or lies on
the form, but also the gun seller who knowingly allows it to happen.

A report from the U.S. Treasury Department's Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms
states that, unlike drugs, guns aren't manufactured in secret factories and smuggled to
dealers. They get to criminals from legitimate gun stores.

"Virtually every crime gun in the United States starts off as a legal firearm," said ATF
Director Bradley Buckles in the June 2000 report.

Federal prosecutors in Chicago confirmed that most guns recovered from criminals in
the city can be traced back to suburban gun shops. Criminals buy them in the suburbs
because it is illegal to sell or own a handgun in the city except under special
circumstances, such as being a police officer.

"The major way that criminals in Chicago get their guns is in the suburbs," said U.S.
Attorney Scott Lassar, who is assisting local law enforcement by taking on more illegal
gun trafficking cases. "What we hope is that gun shops are going to be more vigilant."

Thomas Ahern, a Chicago spokesman for the ATF, said the federal law could be
compared to what is routinely expected of bartenders: Sure, you could sell one more
beer, but if you know the customer has had too much to drink and is going to drive, you
shouldn't serve him.

"It's just giving the dealers a little more responsibility," Ahern said.

But the B&H Sports trial and the ATF report show that it may not be as clear-cut as a
customer walking into a gun shop flashing gang signs and asking for bullets that cut
through bullet-proof vests.

Of 387 investigations of straw sales conducted by the ATF from July 1996 to December
1998, only 5 percent of the illegal gun owners had a fellow gang member purchase the
gun for them.

A woman who testified in the case against B&H Sports said she went to the store and
purchased a gun she later gave to her boyfriend, a drug dealer. The woman, Yolanda
Webb of Chicago, had already been convicted of the crime of transferring the gun
without documentation when she testified.

Federal prosecutors said they are not out to shut down all gun stores and keep
law-abiding citizens from purchasing guns.

They said new technology is allowing them to track guns used in crimes back to the
stores where they were purchased, helping officers ferret out the licensed gun dealers
who appear to be putting profits ahead of community safety.

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