Gardenia Blanding walked into the Baltimore Gunsmith shop on South Broadway one day in 1991 and bought firearms for the first time in her life.
She purchased $6,000 worth of high-powered handguns, including an Israeli Desert Eagle .44-caliber Magnum, two Beretta semiautomatics and a laser-sighted Taurus pistol.
But she didn't walk out of the store with them. She gave them to a man she had never met before. He was Nathaniel Dawson Jr. -- a felon who by law was barred from purchasing firearms. Dawson picked out the guns at the counter and gave her the cash to pay for them.
He also paid Ms. Blanding $500 for "brokering the transaction," court papers said, and the two parted ways, never to see each other again.
Dawson took the guns and went back to his world of running a murderous drug ring in East Baltimore. He soon would become one of the city's most notorious killers.
And Ms. Blanding, 39, of Northwest Baltimore went back to her world, that of a working mother who manages a jewelry counter at a local department store.
The transaction is a classic example of a growing national phenomenon known as "straw purchasing," in which felons pay people without criminal records to buy firearms. Federal agents say ordinary citizens like Ms. Blanding are becoming the arms merchants for today's violent drug trade.
"I had no intention of ever hurting anyone. That's not me," said Ms. Blanding, who contends she was fast-talked into the deal by a friend who knew Dawson. "Who that young man [Dawson] was, I didn't know."
Dawson is serving four life sentences in a federal prison now, convicted of being a drug kingpin responsible for two murders, including the Nov. 4, 1993, shooting of 10-year-old Tauris Johnson.
The boy was playing football in the street when he was killed during an East Baltimore shootout between a rival drug organization and Dawson's bodyguards, who were routinely armed with the guns bought by Ms. Blanding, court records said.
Ms. Blanding was given immunity from prosecution for her cooperation in the case against her friend, Laird Hank Davage, who in January received a suspended 18-month prison sentence for illegally purchasing firearms.
Like many straw purchasers, Ms. Blanding says she was unaware she had done anything wrong until detectives called to say the guns were turning up in murder and drug cases.
"I had gone to the shop to just buy a firearm for my own protection. Unfortunately, I was taken advantage of, and it turned into something else," said Ms. Blanding, who denies being paid money by Dawson.
The bullet that killed Tauris came from a 9 mm Glock, although it wasn't one purchased by Ms. Blanding. But among the weapons that Dawson provided his bodyguards were the Desert Eagle pistol and the laser-sighted Taurus, both purchased by Ms. Blanding, according to firearm records.
Law enforcement sources said another of the handguns purchased by Ms. Blanding may have been used in a separate murder and is being checked by ballistics experts at the National Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms (ATF) laboratory in Rockville.
"This is the typical profile of a straw purchaser," said Margaret D. Moore, head of the Baltimore division of the ATF. She said as many as 25 percent of guns used in Maryland crimes are bought through straw purchases.
Many of the illegal purchasers, who in essence have sold their clean criminal record to felons looking to buy firearms, are young drug addicts and relatives of the felons. But there's always the occasional housewife or girlfriend who doesn't realize what she's getting involved in, firearms agents say.
"It's a real problem for us. I'm not trying to be sexist, but if a woman goes in to buy six high-powered semiautomatic handguns, it's a good bet she's not buying them for herself," Ms. Moore said.
Gun shops say they are in a bad position, because it's difficult to tell whether customers are buying guns for their own protection or to supply to a felon.
"Suppose that woman came in here to buy those guns for her and her five brothers as birthday presents. Sure, it's unlikely. But how do I know she wasn't?" said Larry DiMartino, a co-owner of the Baltimore Gunsmith shop.
Mr. DiMartino said the shop caters to a large clientele in a major city and thus some weapons are bound to be used in crimes. He pointed to signs posted on the counter at the shop warning customers that third-party or straw purchases are illegal.
In a six-month period in 1991, another woman, 22-year-old Sheila Kelly, spent $5,274 to buy eight powerful guns at Baltimore Gunsmith, according to court records. Among them were a Cobray Street Sweeper 12-gauge shotgun and a Calico assault pistol.
Court papers said the real purchaser of the guns was Anthony Jones, 18, later convicted of running an East Baltimore cocaine operation. Prosecutors said he used Ms. Kelly, whom they contend used drugs, to buy the guns because he was under 21, the minimum age to buy guns legally.
Perhaps because of straw purchases, Baltimore Gunsmith came out on top of an ATF analysis of Maryland dealers whose guns turned up in crimes between April 1993 and September 1994.
Straw purchasing is a way around gun laws prohibiting anyone convicted of a felony, or a misdemeanor crime punishable by two or more years in prison, from purchasing a handgun.
In Maryland, where roughly 30,000 handguns are sold each year, gun shops are required to make each prospective buyer of regulated firearms fill out an application before sale.
During the required seven-day waiting period, the forms are sent by certified mail to state police, who run a criminal record check on the applicant. If the person has no criminal record, the form is sent back stamped "Not Disapproved" and the gun shop may legally sell the person any number of weapons.
Gun dealers are encouraged to report any suspicious customers who may be potential straw purchasers. But last year, state police got only12 to 15 calls from licensed gun dealers who were concerned about people who passed the criminal records check, said Sgt. Bernard H. Shaw, head of the firearms licensing section.
"The dealer doesn't have to sell to anyone," Sergeant Shaw said. "There are dealers out there that will sell to
criminals. But a majority of the dealers will try to screen them out. We do get calls from dealers saying, 'This guy is strange, what should I do?' "
Prosecutions of straw purchasers are rare. Rarer still are criminal charges against gun shop owners involved in straw purchasing.
"You have to catch the dealer in the act of doing it," said Sergeant Shaw, who noted that he recalled only one gun shop owner -- an Easton-area broker -- being charged in the past four years.
Anti-gun activists have wrestled with the straw purchase problem for years. Marylanders Against Handgun Abuse has proposed legislation in the past -- and will again this year -- to make straw purchasers civilly liable for any crime committed with a gun they purchase.
Dick Willis, the executive director of the organization, said another deterrent would be to limit the number of handguns someone could purchase in a year. Many straw purchasers buy in bulk, and a limit of two guns per year would discourage them, Mr. Willis said.
"It's a very tough problem for law enforcement, and even for the gun shops," he said. "How do you prove that someone is buying guns for resale?"
He cited a recent case in which a man bought 20 guns at an area shop, then drove up the street, popped the trunk and sold them by the roadside.
"There's just not much we can do," said Sheree Mixell, an ATF senior operations officer in Baltimore. "If they fill out the paperwork and have no criminal record, we have to sell them the guns. That's the way America is supposed to work."
Ms. Blanding still works at the jewelry counter. She steadfastly maintains that she didn't realize what was happening when she signed the purchase order for the guns.
"I went to the gun shop that day to learn the process of buying a gun. It wasn't for drugs or hurting people," she said. "When I heard what this was really all about, I felt like a fool."