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Online Gun Sting Draws Scrutiny
and Federal Criticism

Worried about illegal gun sales, Attorney General Jim Ryan had his staff surf the Internet last year looking for criminals. The sting netted six weapon sales and a single conviction but no jail time.

Since then, federal authorities have criticized Ryan's approach and the attorney general's own chief lawyer admitted four of the cases were dropped over fears sellers were improperly lured into illegal actions.

David Chipman, an agent with the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms, criticized the lone conviction against a Michigan man who sold a submachine gun. He said Ryan's office did not cooperate with the ATF to build a stronger case or force the man to help find other dealers.

It's not clear what Ryan expected to accomplish. His aides have said the sting was meant to nab crooks. They also have said it was simply to gather information because they knew that no state law applied.

Ryan's office has also called the probe a success that produced a change in state law.

In early 2000, Ryan's office spent $5,200 to buy six weapons a British Sten Mark II machine gun, three AK-47s, an Israeli Galil assault rifle and a semiautomatic pistol from an Ohio police officer. Most were chosen from an online post for legally selling and swapping weapons.

Ryan's staff was able to buy the weapons without the required transfer through gun dealers with federal firearms licenses, or FFLs. To do that, the investigators had to tell the sellers falsely that the transactions were legal.

"I need to send it to an FFL dealer, right? Don't I need a copy of an FFL from you?" a seller of an AK-47 asked via e-mail.

"If you are not a dealer and just a private citizen, you can sell directly to me," investigator Tom Berola responded, according to documents obtained by The Associated Press through the Freedom of Information Act. "If I lived down the street from you we would not need a dealer to sell to each other, would we?"

State law prohibits convicting people who are "incited or induced" into criminal activity. Police may encourage someone who is ready to commit a crime, but not lie about whether it's legal, said Paul Robinson, a Northwestern University law professor and former federal prosecutor.

Ryan's lawyers decided not to prosecute.

The case against the Ohio police officer who allegedly sold a handgun illegally was dropped for lack of evidence, a Ryan spokesman said.

The one prosecution was against Christopher Tocco, 36, of Goodrich, Mich. He pleaded guilty to unlawful use of a weapon the submachine gun and got two years' probation and 50 hours of community service.

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