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The Gun Wars: Targeting Straw Buyers

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By Tom Ferrick Jr.

 

For a law-enforcement success story look to the work of the Gun Violence Task Force, a joint city-state venture created three years ago to crack down on illegal guns  in Philadelphia.

In late December, the Task Force announced its latest round of arrests - 21 persons accused of gun trafficking and related offenses. It brings to nearly 400 arrested by the Task Force since its creation, most of them either straw purchasers who bought guns for others or felons who obtained guns illegally.

To date, the Task Force has opened 1,207 investigations, seized 743 firearms and convicted 157 people of various gun-related offenses. That last number will go even higher as more cases are processed through the courts.

There is more to this story than statistics.

Philadelphia is now a national leader in actively pursuing gun-related cases, particularly in trying to thwart the practice of straw purchasing.  Along the way, local officials have learned more about gun trafficking - the real story behind the numbers - in ways that have attracted the interest of law enforcement agencies and others looking for ways to stem gun violence.

As Daniel W. Webster, director of the Center for Gun Policy Research at Johns Hopkins University, put it Philadelphia is "one of a few, relative minority of places" that examine these cases in such detail.

"It's an unusual thing to do," Webster said. "Because forever and ever police have been interested in who is pulling the trigger, not who supplied the gun."

 

Herding cats

The task force also serves as an example of what can be accomplished when each part of the criminal justice machinery works together. In order to succeed, the task force needed the attorney general's office, the district attorney's office, the police and the courts to cooperate and work in tandem.  They did.

A lot of credit goes to Al Toczydlowski, a well-respected prosecutor who was hired to supervise the task force. Toczydlowski, who worked in the Philadelphia district attorney's office for 32 years, came out of retirement to create the task force, which officially is an agency of state government under Attorney General Tom Corbett.

The $5 million needed annually to finance task force operations was originally inserted into the state budget in 2006 by state Sen. Vincent Fumo, now serving time in federal prison after his conviction on federal corruption charges last year.

In Harrisburg, the debate over gun violence divides into two camps: gun-control advocates and the supporters of the National Rifle Association (NRA). To oversimplify, anti-gun advocates argue new laws are needed to make it more difficult to purchase guns; the NRA supporters respond there are sanctions for misuse of guns and the problem can be solved by enforcement of existing laws.

Unusual for an urban Democrat, Fumo was a consistent opponent of gun control - but by funding the task force he was placing a bet on enforcement solving the problem.

(See Part Three for a discussion of gun control vs. enforcement.)

Sometimes throwing money at a problem does work.

The money has paid for improvements in the police ballistics lab in Philadelphia and provided money for an advertising campaign, called "Think Again," which is designed to discourage potential straw purchasers.

But, the heart of the operation is the local team of 32 prosecutors and investigators assembled by Toczydlowski. Most of the agents, including supervisory Special Agent Tom Burke, are former Philadelphia police detectives lured out of retirement by the chance to do police work once again.

They entered virgin territory.  As Webster noted, to Philadelphia police and prosecutors guns were an afterthought of crime - a piece of evidence and little more.

"Nothing was being done to investigate the guns that were involved in crimes - just because of the lack of resources," said Toczydlowski. "There was no follow up.  They concentrated on the crime itself."

 

Focus on felons

The task force focused its effort on felons.  Convicted felons cannot purchase or possess guns.  Yet, as every police officer knew, they had ready access to them.

As Toczydlowski framed it, the issue was: "How did the guy get the gun? Felons can't get guns, so how are they getting them? Where are they getting them? That is our mission."

Toczydlowski said most criminals prefer to buy new guns purchased at gun shops or shows.

"The more sophisticated criminals don't like to buy guns on the street because they don't know whose hands they have been in," Toczydlowski said. "They may have a murder on them or a robbery on them.  If they are caught with that gun, they could become a suspect in something else.  So, they want the guns out of the stores."

Since felons cannot buy guns, Burke said they have also been known to obtain false ID's.

But most turn to straw purchasers - people without criminal records - who will go to a gun shop or gun show and buy the guns for them.

As it turns out, even felons have girlfriends and they often act as the straw purchaser.

"Why do people do it?" Toczydlowski said. "They do it for love, drugs or money."

To date, the task force has found little evidence of professional gun trafficking - people who buy new guns in bulk and sell them to criminals at a hefty profit.

Burke credits his agents, with their long experience in interrogation, for being able to flip straw purchasers and get them to identify the true owner of the guns.  Under plea bargains, the straw buyers often get probation in exchange for pointing task force agents to felons, who get state prison time for gun possession.

Has the task force had a measurable effect on gun violence?

"I can't say that," Toczydlowski said. "But if we put people with violent records away for any period of time, you are stopping crime.  And I think that is the biggest effect.  If you take 200 guys who always carried guns off the street, that is going to have an effect."

 

The Gun Wars II - In a Sea of Weapons: How one police lab has benefited from the battle against  guns.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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