March 05, 2008 News & Features » Cover Story


Moving Target 

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Think "The Harder They Come" without the grainy, black-and-white footage and a crooning Jimmy Cliff. Instead the star is a 17-year-old gang member, Damian Morrison, who gets into a fatal shootout with police officers in Kingston, Jamaica, on Oct. 24, 2003.

Police, responding to calls of shots being fired, run up on three roughnecks. One of them, Morrison, pulls a Taurus 9 mm from his waistband and starts firing. He doesn't make it, but the Kingston officers recover the 9 mm and take it back to the station.

There, they enter the serial number into a gun-tracing database in the United States managed by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives. They turn up a match: The gun was purchased five years ago, some 1,300 miles away in Norfolk, by a Navy enlistee named Garfield Headlam.

He'd bought this particular gun Dec. 31, 1998. But it's only one of the 57 firearms connected to Headlam, a small-time firearms trafficker who employed five "straw purchasers" in Norfolk. They'd buy the guns that he in turn sold to convicted felons, primarily drug dealers and gang members. Police still aren't entirely sure how one of the pistols wound up in Kingston five years later.

A gun trace in Jamaica that leads ATF agents to a Norfolk gun trafficker may seem like a minor blip on a show like "CSI," but the case illustrates a paradigm shift in the way local, state and federal officers investigate what is typically the most important piece of evidence found at the scene of a violent crime: the weapon itself.

Guns and their availability in Virginia — and the rights of average citizens to obtain and conceal their weapons in public places — has seen flourishing public discourse, especially when the General Assembly is in session. But the relationship between gun sales and gun crime has gotten lost in the debate.

Exactly how do Virginia's gun laws affect the ability of police to put criminals behind bars? And how would laws regulating secondary gun sales affect the crime rate?

There's no question that some handguns are purchased today and used in a crime tomorrow, but statistics show that's not typically how things shake out.

"It's estimated that there are over 300 million guns in the United States," says Michael Campbell, special agent and public information officer for the ATF in Washington, D.C. "Ninety-nine percent of gun dealers are legitimate gun dealers that are doing everything they are supposed to do. But there is a vibrant secondary market."

Richmond offers an interesting case study. For years, there were no registered gun dealers within city limits (except for the Dick's Sporting Goods at Stony Point Fashion Park on the city's western edge). Only a handful of pawn shops sell used firearms within the city proper, but there are very few gun sales in the city to speak of. In metro Richmond, gun retailing is primarily contained in the suburbs (Wal-Mart) and at rural hunting outposts in places like Hanover County (Green Top Sporting Goods). The shops are located near the biggest retail consumers of firearms — hunters and sportsmen.

The vast majority of the region's gun violence, however, is relegated to the city. Clearly the barrier to entry is low. Green Top, after all, is just a 30-minute drive from downtown. But the pattern of retail gun sales doesn't directly correlate to gun violence in metro Richmond; in fact, it's more likely that the two are mutually exclusive. Remember that the gun recovered in Jamaica was purchased 1,300 miles away, in Norfolk.

The reason is simple: Convicted felons cannot simply walk into a store and purchase a gun. Doing so requires a background check. Anyone purchasing a firearm from a licensed gun dealer must fill out an application for a federal firearms license, which is electronically sent to the ATF-administered National Instant Criminal Background Check System, which determines if the applicant has been legally barred from owning a firearm. The idea that a criminal pops into the local gun shop, buys his weapon of choice and then ventures out to commit his crime doesn't quite fit.

That's not to say that guns aren't purchased and immediately used in the commission of a crime. In 2006, according to the ATF, 431 guns were bought in Virginia and used to commit a crime within three months. But the vast majority of the firearms recovered in connection with a crime Virginia in 2006 — 58 percent, or 2,856 guns in total — were purchased at least three years earlier. The average "time-to-crime" for a recovered weapon in 2006 — the most recent year statistics are available — was 8.34 years, according to the ATF. The national average is 10.17 years.

That means it takes the better part of a decade for the gun purchased at the local gun shop to wind up at the scene of a crime, in the hands of an armed robber, a drug dealer, a murderer.

So the 10-year-period after the gun is initially purchased is far more significant in the life of that gun as it makes its journey from lawful to unlawful, from law-abiding citizen to the criminally minded.

It's a period that's largely unregulated. In Virginia, for example, it's perfectly legal for someone to buy a gun and then sell it or give it away to just about anyone, as long as the buyer didn't purchase the gun for someone (the definition of straw purchase).

"I think we could probably stop gun sales tomorrow, but it wouldn't have an immediate impact on violence," says Brian R. Swann, resident agent in charge of the Richmond field office for the ATF. Despite so much talk to the contrary — about the dangers of gun-show loopholes and irresponsible gun-shop owners selling pistols to collegiate head-cases — statistics suggest the source of criminal gunplay is more complex.

Because secondary gun sales in Virginia are unregulated, detectives often are handcuffed when it comes to locating or apprehending the owner of a recovered firearm. Initially, all the detective has to go on is the point of purchase. If the serial number on the gun hasn't been scratched off, it can be used to trace where the gun was manufactured, the wholesaler who bought it from the manufacturer, and the gun-shop owner who purchased the gun. In 2007, the ATF National Tracing Center conducted 288,000 such traces in the United States.

The last, most crucial piece of evidence is the first retail buyer of the gun. Because it's federal law that the purchaser's name be recorded and stored in a national database, police can almost instantly identify and locate the initial buyer.

There are other methods of tracking firearms, the most important of which is the ATF's National Integrated Ballistics Information Network (NIBIN), a computer system that stores and analyzes bullets and cartridge casings. The system was first installed in the mid-1990s, and over the years NIBIN has grown more sophisticated and effective as more and more data gets entered into it. The ATF's database was merged with a similar computer system operated by the FBI in 2001, and from there the system became more sophisticated and useful.

In the Richmond NIBIN lab, located inside the Virginia Department of Forensic Science on Fifth Street behind the Richmond Coliseum, lab technicians have made more than 200 matches, or "hits."

Here's how it works: Say the police recover a Colt .45 in an armed robbery in Richmond. They send the firearm to the Fifth Street lab, where a technician takes the .45 and fires it into a tank filled with about three feet of water. The technician recovers the shell casing and bullet, photographs it with a microscopic camera and scans it into a computer. Each gun leaves distinct markings on the back of the cartridge — its DNA — and the computer system begins scanning a national network of databases searching for a match.

Because there's a good chance the gun has been out in the world for eight to 10 years, there's a chance it's been used in a crime somewhere else. When the lab finds a "hit" — say a bullet casing found in Richmond matches another casing found in New York — it can breathe life into a dormant investigation.

In a recent case involving a malicious wounding in Henrico County, the lab was able to match the shell casings found at the scene with a 9 mm found "days later" during a drug bust in Richmond, says Scott Glass, a forensic scientist in the state lab's firearm and toolmark division.

"Maybe they didn't have a suspect in the malicious wounding case," he says, "but they do now." Admittedly, as the NIBIN database grows, so does the information network and its usefulness.

In Maryland, which unlike Virginia regulates secondary gun sales, all new and used firearm sales are recorded into a tracing database that the state has managed since 1966. In fact, the state keeps such meticulous records it's been able to determine that, historically, most of the guns recovered from crime scenes were purchased in the state of Maryland. In other words, the state produces its own crime guns.

But Maryland still often sees conflicting data.

Of the 1,800 guns recovered in the city of Baltimore from June 1, 2007, through Jan. 3, 2008, about 49 percent weren't registered in Maryland, says Lt. Greg Mazzella in the Criminal Investigation Division for Maryland State Police. That means more than half the guns were coming from outside the state.

"Maryland has consistently supplied its own guns," says Mazzella, adding that the numbers are a tad confusing. "They are coming and going."

He says Maryland works closely with Virginia because it's a border state, but also because Virginia doesn't regulate its secondary gun sales. Mazzella says it would make sense if a large portion of the guns coming into Baltimore from other states came from Virginia, but it's difficult to say. They could come from just about anywhere.

"Guns just don't go away," Mazzella says. "Guns are coming from Washington, D.C., and obviously they don't sell guns."

Guns are, however, sold at the Richmond Raceway Complex. On a recent Saturday in February, the exhibition hall is full of gun dealers and buyers gathering for a weekend gun show run by a Roanoke promotion outfit, Showmasters Gun Shows (slogan: "Always on Target"), and the expanse of weaponry is impressive. There's a sea of tables covered with pistols, revolvers, semi-automatics, pink-handled derringers and rifles, not to mention Civil War-era muskets and other memorabilia, complete with plastic price tags and extra magazines for ammunition.

To hear some tell it, guns shows like this one have become a criminal buffet of sorts, a bonanza that attracts those who can't legally purchase guns to meld into the background, either paying someone else to buy a new gun or approaching one of the smaller dealers to purchase a used one (which doesn't require a background check).

In February 2006, Michael Bouchard, assistant director of field operations for the ATF, testified in Congress that between 2002 and 2005, more than 400 firearms sold at gun shows in Richmond, including shows at the raceway complex, were recovered by police in connection with criminal activity. In one instance, according to the ATF, a member of a notorious gang "straw-purchased" an AK-47 at a Richmond gun show in 2004, which police say was used to commit murder nine days later in the city.

That's why local, state and federal law enforcement officers are concerned about gun shows. At last month's show, the promoters and dealers casually point out that the event is "crawling with undercover officers." They contend it's hardly a place for the common criminal. And there are no AKs. It happens sporadically throughout the weekend: A convicted felon attempts to obtain a gun and gets picked up on the spot by state police officers and ATF agents working the floor.

The vast majority of the guns are sold by a handful of licensed dealers such as Jim Golden of Golden Arms Co. in Colonial Heights. He's had people come in with fake IDs and attempt to make a purchase, or he's picked up on something suspicious and called the police. He says there's no incentive for gun dealers to sell to criminals, who prefer cheaper handgun brands, such as Hi-Point, which typically cost less than $200.

If police come to your shop regularly for gun traces — tracking a gun used in the commission of a crime — you're in trouble, Golden says.

"If you get more than 10 traces a year, you get put on a hot sheet, and they'll come live with you," says Golden, who is working the Saturday show with his grandson, 4-year-old Tyler Golden, who's wearing fatigues. He says he tries to avoid traces by not selling a lot of the cheap guns. "At some point," Golden says, "those guns are going to be used in a crime or [recovered] at a traffic stop."

Another dealer at the show, Mark Bailey, had the state police in his shop recently. During a pawn shop raid in West Virginia in late December, police recovered a couple of rifles stolen from Bailey's store in Tazewell. In 2005, Bailey says, 35 guns were taken from Bailey's Gun Supplies, most of which were hunting rifles.

Most of the traces, he adds, come from Richmond.

"Richmond is kind of like a bad neighborhood," he says, adding that, of late, more customers are approaching him to ask about protection. "I get a lot more questions, like they need something for the house."

Bailey doesn't understand what the fuss is all about when it comes to gun shows, especially considering that he has to register with the state police before he can set up a table and start selling guns. "You just can't go anywhere and start selling guns," he says.

At the recent show in Richmond, it hardly seems like a convention for ex-convicts and drug dealers. Most of the customers appear to be middle-aged men, and the parking lot is full of pickup trucks with rifle racks. It's packed with hunters and military types.

Annette Elliott, co-promoter of the gun show, says most of her vendors have a good relationship with the police. And she doesn't see a lot of criminals coming through. Despite the sea of firearms, she likes to point out how safe she feels inside the exhibition hall. "It's very safe in here," she says in a Southwest Virginia twang. "You can go out there and get shot."

The ATF regularly recovers firearms in the streets of Richmond that were originally purchased at gun shows, says special agent Swann. But he acknowledges that the ATF can't prove the gun-show loophole is a source of illegal guns in the streets. There's no way to know because the loophole allows private collectors, who aren't required to have a federal license or to perform background checks, to set up tables at gun shows and sell their "personal collections." Only the guns recovered on the streets that are sold by licensed dealers show up in the statistics.

Swann is convinced that firearms sold at gun shows are still regularly showing up on the streets of Richmond even though he doesn't "have any statistical data presently to support it," he says.

Either way, it's only a small percentage of the guns used to commit crimes.

Bailey, from Tazewell, says he takes time to counsel his customers on weapons and isn't afraid to turn someone away. He recently told a customer not to purchase a pistol, but instead to go buy some pepper spray. He didn't think the man, who approached his table at a recent show in Chantilly, had any business buying a gun.

"I told this guy, 'Buddy, my advice to you: I don't think you should have a gun,'" Bailey recalls telling the man, who seemed like a "bright guy," he says, but didn't even know what a magazine was. "He had a lot of questions that I thought was stupid. It was kind of scary." S

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