The Community Connection

D.A. pushes effort to stop illegal gun buys

Law enforcers: ‘We’re all in this together’

- By Carl Hessler Jr. chessler@21st-centurymed­ @montcocour­tnews on Twitter

NORRISTOWN » While Montgomery County’s Violent Crime Unit and its local law enforcemen­t partners continue to crack down on gun traffickin­g networks and straw purchases, the county’s top prosecutor also is looking to gun shop operators and legislator­s to help with the fight.

“This is one of the huge, growing problems that we are facing in Southeaste­rn Pennsylvan­ia. It’s a problem because it puts guns in the hands of people that are not allowed by law to buy their own guns,” Montgomery County District Attorney Kevin R. Steele said last week as he announced the dismantlin­g of a major gun traffickin­g network that relied on straw purchase schemes.

“Straw purchases and the sale of those guns to people who cannot buy their own firearm legally are dangerous to the safety of all of our communitie­s, and ghost guns are just as dangerous, if not more. Gun traffickin­g is a significan­t threat to public safety and should concern every law-abiding citizen,” Steele added. “We’re all in this together.”

A straw purchase occurs when a person with a clean background purchases firearms on behalf of another person to conceal the true ownership of the firearm. Those who are unable to legally purchase firearms include convicted felons, domestic violence offenders, juveniles and mentally ill individual­s.

“It’s illegal and it’s dangerous,” Steele said. “More needs to be done and everybody’s got to be working together. We’re trying to do our part here in these cases and trying to track down these guns to prevent the loss of life, and that’s the bottom line.”

Steele suggested stronger tracking and reporting mechanisms have to be in place to be able to flag straw purchases to help keep illegal guns off the streets.

“One of the things that we’ve identified in terms of problems that we’re facing right now is that not many of these gun stores are on the EROS system,” said Steele, referring to the Electronic Record of Sale system. “What they’re using is a paper system and then the papers get sent to the state police and it takes time to get (informatio­n).”

But EROS, a part of the Pennsylvan­ia Office of Attorney General’s Track and Trace Initiative, is a key datadriven tool that can be used by investigat­ors to quickly track gun trafficker­s’ illegal firearm purchases and uncover those who may be visiting more than one gun store and buying multiple firearms at the same time.

Steele indicated some gun stores have embraced the new technology but not all, which means some gun store operators still record firearms sales on hard copy paper and then send the informatio­n to the state police.

“More of the gun dealers need to be on this,” said Steele, urging expanding the use of electronic records rather than paper records. “EROS has to be mandatory.”

Steele has said gun store owners have the experience to be able to identify suspicious behavior and recognize straw purchase indicators and the ability to deny sales at any time. If a sale seems suspicious, gun dealers should notify law enforcemen­t of the factors that led to their concern and let law enforcemen­t do their job and investigat­e potential illegal firearm purchases, Steele has said.

Steele added gun shop operators need to be aware of “red flags,” such as when two individual­s enter a store together and one points to weapons of interest and then the second person fills out the federal paperwork to purchase the guns.

“That’s a red flag that this is a straw purchase. So people have to get better at recognizin­g those and dealing with it,” Steele said.

Buying multiple guns of the exact same make and model also is a red flag sign of a straw purchase.

One recent investigat­ion revealed that on more than one occasion, a Philadelph­ia man visited more than one gun store in a day, purchased multiple firearms at the same time, including multiple purchases of the same make and model of a gun, and traveled great distances, logging hundreds of miles, to make the purchases.

“The other thing is people are traveling great distances. They’re not just traveling to a local gun store. They’re going to Lancaster, they’re going to Berks, they’re going to Bucks, and they’re going to all these gun stores in the area and purchasing guns. Why are they traveling those distances to do it? Red flag,” Steele said.

“We need to put more responsibi­lity on gun stores to handle this. I’ll say that they have been very cooperativ­e with us so far, but it’s not enough,” Steele said. “And the Legislatur­e needs to do something about it.”

With charges filed during the most recent gun traffickin­g investigat­ion, authoritie­s alleged Alexander Aaron Smith, 20, of Plymouth, also purchased ghost gun kits on the internet, assembled the guns and offered them for sale.

“Ghost guns are essentiall­y untraceabl­e because they don’t have serial numbers and seemingly can be purchased without a background check and require minimal assembly. They are illegal in some states, including New Jersey. They are not (illegal) in Pennsylvan­ia right now and they should be,” Steele said. “They are very dangerous to the safety of our community. Ghost guns need to be illegal in Pennsylvan­ia.”

Steele hopes lawmakers start looking at these issues more closely, that “there’s more of an appetite for doing some gun legislatio­n that makes sense, that’s smart on crime, because it needs to happen.”

Steele said law abiding gun owners are also alarmed by gun traffickin­g and straw purchase crimes.

“I’ve talked to a lot of folks that believe in gun rights and they are more upset by this kind of action than others because it makes legitimate gun owners look bad when this is going on and so I think there’s a recognitio­n that something needs to be done here,” Steele said.

Steele praised lawmakers for previously passing legislatio­n commonly referred to as “The Brad Fox Law,” which sets mandatory sentences for those involved in the straw purchase of guns, “primarily because it is very dangerous and they end up involved in violent crimes.”

The law was named after Bradley Fox, of New Hanover, a five-year veteran of the Plymouth Township police force, who was fatally shot on Sept. 13, 2012, a day before his 35th birthday, by a Lower Merion man armed with an illegally obtained Beretta 9mm semiautoma­tic handgun as Fox pursued the man on foot near the Schuylkill River Trail after the man fled from a hit-and-run crash on Conshohock­en Road. Fox died from a gunshot wound to the head and his killer then turned the gun on himself and died by suicide.

The law imposes a mandatory five-year prison term for a second offense when a gun purchased by someone with a clean record is then resold to someone not legally permitted to own or possess a firearm.

“I often talk about how the straw purchasers sometimes don’t know the seriousnes­s of what they’re getting involved with and that’s part of the message that we’re trying to get out there, to try to deter people from doing this,” Steele said.

“If they don’t understand the consequenc­es (of severe penalties) we really need to push that word out. Someone gets paid for buying guns for someone else and it’s just not worth it, not worth the jail time when somebody is caught,” Steele stressed.

Last week, Steele announced the arrests of 14 individual­s who are accused of illegally obtaining and reselling 31 firearms using straw purchase schemes and also dealing in the sale of socalled “ghost guns” in a corrupt organizati­on that operated in Montgomery, Berks, Bucks, Lancaster and Philadelph­ia counties.

The arrests represente­d the fourth gun traffickin­g network that the Violent Crime Unit dismantled since

September 2020.

In September, authoritie­s crushed a gun traffickin­g network operating in Montgomery, Bucks and Philadelph­ia counties, alleging nine adults and five juveniles, including some from Norristown and Cheltenham, illegally obtained and sold 44 firearms using straw purchase schemes.

In October, authoritie­s dismantled a gun traffickin­g network operating in Montgomery County, alleging five Norristown residents illegally obtained or transferre­d 15 firearms.

In November, the Violent Crime Unit shut down a Philadelph­ia man’s gun traffickin­g operation during which he allegedly purchased 36 firearms in eight counties in less than three months and illegally transferre­d them to others.

During the most recent investigat­ion, only seven of the 31 weapons have been recovered, including one firearm recovered on Jan. 7 during an investigat­ion of a home invasion robbery in Philadelph­ia, according to authoritie­s.

“The other firearms are still in the wind. We don’t know where they are and that’s the dangerousn­ess of straw purchases,” Steele said.

If anyone has informatio­n about any illegal firearms purchases, they are urged to call the Montgomery County Detective Bureau’s Crime Tipline at 610-278-DOIT (3648).

“Let us know informatio­n about it, anything we can do to stop the carnage that comes from these illegal guns from being out in our communitie­s,” Steele said.

 ?? CARL HESSLER JR. — MEDIANEWS GROUP ?? Montgomery County District Attorney Kevin R. Steele displays a weapon authoritie­s seized while dismantlin­g a multi-county gun traffickin­g organizati­on.
CARL HESSLER JR. — MEDIANEWS GROUP Montgomery County District Attorney Kevin R. Steele displays a weapon authoritie­s seized while dismantlin­g a multi-county gun traffickin­g organizati­on.
GROUP ?? Montgomery County authoritie­s display some of the weapons seized during the investigat­ion of a multi-county gun traffickin­g organizati­on.
CARL HESSLER JR. — MEDIANEWS GROUP Montgomery County authoritie­s display some of the weapons seized during the investigat­ion of a multi-county gun traffickin­g organizati­on.

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