12.17.11

More Cops Shot as Felons Buy Illegal Guns Online

Last week, a New York City officer was killed in the line of duty. Blame the Internet—and the NRA—which have made cracking down on illegal guns a losing battle. By Josh Dzieza

Two weeks ago, Officer Deriek Crouse was shot and killed on the Virginia Tech campus, a chilling reminder of the massacre at that school three years ago. This week, Officer Peter Figorski was shot and killed while responding to a robbery in Brooklyn. If it seems like there’s been a spate of officer shootings lately, there has been: Figorski was the 61st officer shot to death this year, a 17 percent increase in gun-related officer deaths over the year before. The first half of 2011 was the deadliest six months for officers in 20 years.

One question raised by Figorski’s death is how the suspect, Lamont Pride, a felon, got his gun. It might have happened easily, according to Mayor Bloomberg. Three days after the shooting, the mayor announced the results of a sting operation run against online gun dealers. Undercover investigators tried to buy guns from 125 private sellers, who aren’t required to conduct background checks. They were shockingly successful. Even after the investigators volunteered that they probably wouldn’t pass a background check had they been required to take one, a majority were still able to buy their guns, including assault weapons.

The Brady Act mandated federal background checks for people buying firearms from federally licensed gun dealers, but not for private sellers. The thinking was that it was an exemption for hobbyists, says John Feinblatt, Bloomberg’s criminal-justice coordinator. But it became what gun-control advocates call the gun-show loophole, through which 30 to 40 percent of gun sales pass, according to the Department of Justice. With the Internet, that loophole has become a “24/7 black market for firearms,” says Feinblatt. “It’s even more anonymous than a gun show, which is already a magnet for criminals. But at least at a gun show you’re selling side by side with honest dealers and the ATF could be around. There’s none of that online.”

Bloomberg, and the 600 other mayors in the group Mayors Against Illegal Guns that he co-chairs, are pushing for the passage of the Fix Gun Checks Act, introduced this year by New York Sen. Charles Schumer and Rep. Carolyn McCarthy. It would require a background check for all gun sales, including those by private sellers. Law-enforcement organizations from the International Association of Chiefs of Police, Major Cities Chiefs Association, and the Police Foundation have come out in support of closing the loophole.

But they face stiff opposition, and Bloomberg isn’t shy about saying who it is. “There’s one organization that's basically behind continuing the chaos in this country," Bloomberg said in this week’s press conference. “It's the NRA.” One of the country’s most powerful interest groups, the NRA outspends gun-control advocates by a wide margin. In the 2010 election cycle, they spent more than $7.2 million on political messaging.

One of the country’s most powerful interest groups, the NRA outspends gun-control advocates by a wide margin.

Gene Voegtlin, legislative officer at the International Association of Chiefs of Police, is grim when he describes the situation. His group supports the Fix Gun Checks Act, as well as the reinstatement of the ban on assault weapons, which expired in 2004 and which President Obama pledged as a candidate to push for. But Obama has since backed away from the ban, and except for a flurry of chatter in Congress after Rep. Gabrielle Giffords was shot, Voegtlin says, “There’s really nothing moving.” Well, not quite nothing, he catches himself. “The only thing that’s moving is HR 822, the national concealed carry law, which would make the situation far worse.” That bill, which passed the House last month, would make a concealed-weapons permit in any state valid in almost every other, effectively nationalizing the laxest law. “We have limited resources, unlike some organizations on the other side of this debate,” says Voegtlin, “so we have to focus our efforts. For the past 10 years we’ve been on the defensive.”

The Daily Beast collected the cases of several recent officer murders and the origins of the guns that killed them. Collectively, they show that almost anyone can get a gun with ease.

Officer Peter Figorski
It’s not clear how the pistol that killed Officer Peter Figorski made its way into the hands of murder suspect Lamont Pride, who had served time for armed robbery and was suspected in another shooting, but it came from a store in Virginia with a history of selling guns that end up out of state. in 1990, Dance Sporting Goods sold a pistol that eventually turned up in the Bronx, where it fired the stray bullet that killed 9-month-old Rayvon Jamison, who became a poster child for gun violence. In both cases the original buyers claimed they lost the guns.

Officer Deriek Crouse
Ross Truett Ashley, the 22-year-old suspected of walking up to Officer Deriek Crouse’s car during a traffic stop on Virginia Tech’s campus and shooting him before turning the gun on himself, bought his gun legally from a store in Virginia. The incident recalled the 2007 massacre in which student Seung Hui Cho killed 32 people with guns he bought online.

Sergeant Tim Chapin
Jesse Mathews, the man accused of killing Sergeant Tim Chapin during the botched robbery of a pawn shop in Chattanooga, Tenn., got his assault rifle by trading three stolen pistols for it at a gun show. After the shooting, Chattanooga Assistant Police Chief Tim Carroll brought attention to the gun-show loophole that allows people to buy weapons without submitting to a background check. "I've got to ask you one question," Carroll said.  "Have you been convicted of a felony? If you say no, I don't have to check that. I'm talking about as an individual. You give me the money, I give you the gun, and you walk out the door. There's no paperwork."

Officer Thomas Wortham
Chicago Police Officer Thomas Wortham was shot and killed last year when four men tried to steal his motorcycle. The gun that killed him was traced to a Mississippi gun shop. It was brought to Chicago by Quawi Gates, who later pleaded guilty to buying weapons in Mississippi and selling them to the Gangster Disciples street gang in Chicago.

Officer Timothy Brenton
Seattle Police Officer Timothy Brenton was shot and killed and his partner wounded when Christopher Mumfort allegedly pulled up alongside their squad car and opened fire with a rifle on Halloween 2009. Mumfort bought the gun, which The Seattle Times described as a “military-style assault rifle,” at a gun show from David Devenny, who was later caught selling guns to a convicted felon and a man with a domestic-violence conviction working with the ATF.

Officer Jesse Hamilton
Despite once being committed to a mental institution and having a long history of psychological problems, Sergio Robles was able to purchase a gun from a sporting-goods store in Pasadena, Texas. His background check came back clear, and he bought the gun. Two weeks later, he shot and killed Officer Jesse Hamilton. The National Instant Criminal Background Check System is supposed to flag anyone who has been involuntarily committed to a mental institution, but states aren’t required to submit records to the database. A study conducted by Mayors Against Illegal Guns after the shooting of Representative Giffords found that states fail to submit millions of records identifying people who are seriously mentally ill, have a history of drug abuse, or are otherwise prohibited from buying weapons.

Eric Kelly, Stephen Mayhle, and Paul Sciullo III
When police responded to a domestic-disturbance report in Pittsburgh, Richard Poplawski answered the door armed with an AK-47 assault rifle and wearing a bulletproof vest. He shot two policeman in the head and killed a third who tried to help. Poplawski, who had been dishonorably discharged from the Marines for assaulting an officer during training, had reportedly been hoarding weapons out of fear the government would soon ban them. He purchased the assault rifle online and three other guns from a local shop.

Officer Rodney Johnson
In 2006, Houston Police Officer Rodney Johnson was shot and killed by Juan Quintero, who should have been prohibited from buying a weapon both because he was a convicted felon and an illegal immigrant. The Brady Center says Quintero circumvented the law by having his wife fill out the paperwork, a common technique called straw buying.