Exploding a long-held myth about stolen guns and the violent street culture they spawn, a new federal study reveals that a large number of guns seized in Baltimore and other cities are bought legally and quickly handed over to criminals.
The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms said its findings show that criminals do not have to forage for stolen, older-model guns. Rather, with the acquiescence of corrupt gun dealers, middlemen help criminals obtain new firearms without having to pay higher street-level prices.
Police said the review of 76,260 guns seized last year at crime scenes in 27 cities from Boston to Los Angeles found that up to 40 percent of the weapons had been purchased from a gun shop within the previous three years.
The quick turnaround from legal purchase to illegal use "is a big indicator that there is trafficking going on," said Special Agent Michael Campbell of Baltimore's ATF office.
He said the study could result in a crackdown on gun dealers and straw purchasers -- people with no criminal records who buy guns and sell them to felons who are barred from buying or owning guns and are unable to pass state and federal background checks.
The ATF found that 36 percent of the guns illegally used by juveniles and half the guns used in crimes by adults ages 18 to 24 had been legitimately sold by a dealer within three years of the crime. In Baltimore, which has the nation's fourth-highest per capita murder rate behind Gary, Ind., New Orleans and Washington, 32 percent of the guns seized fit that three-year turnaround.
In one example, 15 of 17 powerful Hi-Point semiautomatic handguns seized from Baltimore teen-agers were less than 3 years old, and one had been used in a crime within three days of its purchase.
"The report shows that we should be looking at a bigger emphasis on the gun dealers," Campbell said. "The majority of the trafficking cases involve weapons that were initially legally purchased."
Joe Weber, the manager of Bart's Sports World in Glen Burnie, said it is unfair to hold gun shops or gunmakers accountable for what happens to the weapons after they are sold to legitimate buyers.
"Sometimes it's obvious," Weber said of straw purchasers. "But most of the time it's not. I don't think anybody, even the governor if he was here working behind the counter, could tell a straw purchase from any other type of purchases."
But Campbell said the straw-purchase trend needs to be reversed. He said that several years ago, most guns used in crimes had been stolen, either from gun shops or private citizens. But using middlemen to buy weapons has opened up a cheaper market.
He said one man recently arrested bought guns in North Carolina using a straw purchase and then resold them in Baltimore.
City police have stepped up enforcement of straw purchasers, most of whom resell the weapons on the street.
Two weeks ago, they charged 13 people under the law and won a conviction in Circuit Court of a man who had never been arrested who bought two guns and sold them to an East Baltimore drug dealer with a long history of felony convictions. The man was sentenced to five years in prison.
Most of the 3,717 guns seized by police in Baltimore between Aug. 1, 1997, and July 31, 1998 -- 62 percent -- had been purchased in Maryland. In all but two of the jurisdictions studied, a majority of the weapons came from the state in which the city is located.
Maryland not only fed its own problem, the ATF said, but it is responsible for supplying 20 percent of the guns used in crimes in neighboring Washington.
The ATF released the study on Sunday. President Clinton is asking Congress in his proposed budget for money to pay for expanding the study to 10 more cities across the country.
It comes as several cities are considering lawsuits against gun manufacturers to hold them accountable for violence. Earlier this month, a federal jury in Brooklyn found nine gunmakers liable in three shootings and ordered three of the firms to pay $560,000 in damages.
"This will give a lot of ammunition to lawyers who want to be involved in suing the industry," said Josh Horwitz, executive director of the Educational Fund to End Handgun Violence. "This shows that the manufacturers are the kerosene for the fire."
Wendell Gauthier, a Louisiana attorney representing New Orleans in its suit against manufacturers, said he would introduce the ATF report as evidence in his suit.
The ATF study also found that more than one-third of the guns seized were from juveniles or young adults under 24 years old. And 81 percent of firearms were handguns, with rapid-fire semiautomatic weapons being prevalent among juveniles and young adults.
Sun staff writer Joe Mathews contributed to this article
Pub Date: 2/23/99