A Baltimore County judge handed down a sentence without jail time yesterday for a former gun dealer charged with illegally providing a weapon to a man who died in a firefight with police last year.
Sanford M. Abrams, an outspoken firearms advocate in Maryland who once served on the board of the National Rifle Association, entered an Alford plea to a single charge of illegally selling a restricted weapon. The plea approved by Circuit Judge John Grason Turnbull II allowed Abrams to maintain his innocence but forced him to concede that the state had enough evidence to convict him.
In turn, Abrams, 58, of Owings Mills, received a five-year suspended prison sentence and one year of probation. As part of his plea agreement, he will divest himself of his weapons inventory, and will be prohibited from owning or selling regulated firearms, including handguns, according to prosecutors.
After the brief hearing yesterday morning in Towson, Abrams and his attorney both declined to comment.
Baltimore County police charged Abrams in May of last year, saying that the sale was illegal because his customer, Keith J. Showalter, had a criminal record that prevented him from owning a gun legally and because such gun sales are supposed to be reported to the Maryland State Police.
On Feb. 18, 2007, police responding to a call from Showalter's estranged girlfriend fatally shot him after he refused to surrender and fired seven rounds from a military-style rifle at the officers, according to authorities.
The charge Abrams pleaded to yesterday did not involve the weapon Showalter fired at police. At issue was a Bushmaster assault rifle, which was sold by Abrams and found inside the home after Showalter's death, lawyers in the case said.
Abrams' attorney Norman B. King said his client had been confused during the sale. He mistakenly thought the model type of Bushmaster rifle he sold did not have to be cleared through state police, King said. Authorities questioned that account because of Abrams' expertise in firearms.
After the sentencing, Showalter's mother complained to Assistant State's Attorney Kristin Blumer about the lack of time behind bars for Abrams. Gun-control advocates who have tracked Abrams for years also questioned whether the punishment fit the crime.
"It is troubling that gun laws are so weak that Abrams could have his license revoked and then sell an assault weapon to a criminal who shot at police and still not receive a day in jail," Daniel R. Vice, senior attorney for the Brady Center to Prevent Gun Violence Legal Action Project wrote in an e-mail yesterday.
Targeted for almost a decade by federal weapons inspectors who repeatedly chided him for poor recordkeeping, Abrams lost his federal license almost two years ago for failing to keep track of hundreds of weapons in his shop's inventory.
His Parkville store, Valley Gun, was one of 41 licensed firearm dealers - out of 80,000 nationwide - ordered by the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives to provide detailed reports on all gun purchases and sales for the previous three years, and to continue providing such reports monthly. Abrams saw it as an improper power play and sued the bureau.
Federal firearms agents found problems in Abrams' bookkeeping almost immediately. After multiple inspections, authorities compared the number of firearms listed in the store's books with the number of firearms on the premises.
The numbers didn't match.
Abrams lost his license after the federal courts determined he had more than 900 violations of recordkeeping regulations.
The criminal case against Abrams started more recently. Federal agents asked county police for help in seizing the firearms at Abrams' store on Harford Road after his federal and state firearms licenses had been revoked.
About that same time, county police received several tips that Abrams was still selling weapons. Paperwork later showed he sold weapons to Showalter, according to prosecutors.