Guns: Is city measure an effective law?
An effective gun law? BY AD CRABLE, Staff Writer
It's been four years since Lancaster city passed an ordinance that requires its residents to report to police when a gun they own is stolen or lost.
The ordinance is designed to take away an alibi for people who illegally buy guns for criminals or others not allowed to have them and then lie that they were lost or stolen when police investigate.
These illicit buys are called "straw purchases."
Has it worked here?
No one has been hit with a fine for not reporting a stolen or lost gun. And the number of stolen-gun reports has not risen significantly since 2009.
But enforcement never was the point of the law, argues Mayor Richard Gray.
"The idea is to take that excuse away from people who would be involved in straw purchases," Gray says. "You have to start somewhere."
There is no way of quantifying how many straw purchases were not made because of the law.
Police Chief Keith Sadler says, "The groups who go to other states to buy guns -- it's just something else to deter them and, if they're caught, to prosecute them with."
Both Gray and Sadler say they are glad the law is on the books.
In 2011 alone, there were 107 firearms that were recovered by city police and attempts were made to find out how they got into the hands of criminals, according to the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives.
But when police are able to trace the weapons back to illegal purchasers, they often avoid prosecution by simply saying the guns had been stolen or lost.
End of case.
"I do not have a specific number but we know that some were straw purchases," says Lancaster County District Attorney Craig Stedman. "Proving those cases can be extremely difficult, however."
To Gray and Sadler, reporting stolen guns to aid in the effort keep them out of the hands of criminals seems like a simple, reasonable thing to expect of citizens.
"I'm just leery of people who have no problem reporting their car stolen out of their driveway, but don't report their gun being stolen," Sadler says.
Adds Gray, a vocal member of Mayors Against Illegal Guns, "There has to be some reasonable balance that allows people to possess and use firearms for whatever purpose, and the rights of the people to be protected."
But to the National Rifle Association and most of Lancaster County's legislators, the mandatory-reporting ordinance now in effect in 30 Pennsylvania municipalities usurps the Legislature's exclusive right to set gun laws, is ignored by criminals and subjects law-abiding citizens to potential prosecution.
"Show us an example of an honest person who didn't report a stolen firearm," state Rep. Bryan Cutler says.
And lawmakers are bent on punishing Lancaster.
Last year, bills were introduced in the state Legislature to allow the NRA and anyone cited by police for not reporting stolen guns to sue cities and collect damages if the ordinances are overturned. The legislation is expected to be introduced again this year.
The legislation is needed, according to prime sponsor Rep. Daryl Metcalfe, a Republican from Butler County, "to stop little tyrants at the local level from enacting their own gun-control measures."
Six of eight members of the Lancaster County delegation supported Metcalfe's bill in 2012.
Because convicted felons are not allowed to purchase or own guns, they often get them through theft. Almost 600,000 guns are stolen from private homes each year nationwide, according to Mayors Against Illegal Guns.
"House burglaries in which firearms are stolen and then sold on the street is a large problem," Stedman says.
Since 2005, 13 law enforcement officers have been shot and killed in Pennsylvania in the line of duty. More than half of the guns used in those killings were stolen.
Another common way bad guys get guns is to have someone with a clean record buy them -- the straw purchase.
Stedman recently sent two local straw-purchase cases to the U.S. Attorney's office because federal penalties are tougher than state penalties.
Straw purchases create a sinister pipeline of guns that frustrates police.
Two notorious Lancaster crimes illustrate the prevalence of ill-gotten guns.
In January 2007, 7-year-old Brianna Pratt was walking home from a nearby store when she was caught in the crossfire of two local drug gangs.
She was shot and almost died.
Three men were arrested for the shootings. One of the handguns recovered had been stolen six months earlier from a Providence Township home. Another gun had its serial number scratched off so it couldn't be traced.
One of those charged, Maleak Gray, had supplied a gun used in the crime. He had been busted earlier for possessing a gun that had been stolen from Coatesville. Because the Coatesville owner had dutifully reported the theft to police, city police were able to charge Gray with receiving stolen property.
In 2000, in a daylight shoot-out in downtown Lancaster, 20-year-old Angel Irizarry fired 17 shots from a modified semiautomatic rifle, injuring a city police officer. He also had two handguns on him.
Police tried to trace ownership of the rifle, but lost the paper trail after the rifle was sold privately through a local newspaper ad. Such private transactions do not require a background check of the buyer.
Since 2006, gun-ridden Philadelphia has had a state-local Gun Violence Task Force created by the Philadelphia district attorney and then-state Attorney General Tom Corbett.
The task force is charged with tracking down straw purchases. As of March 2012, the task force had made 677 arrests of people for either illegally buying or receiving guns, with a 90 to 95 percent conviction rate. Also, the task force had seized 1,521 illegally owned guns.
One clear trend: A significant number of women, often girlfriends or drug users, purchased guns for men with criminal records.
In one case in 2005, a man made a straw purchase and then reported the gun stolen. However, police had already confiscated the handgun, which had been used in a crime three months earlier.
To throw up some kind of roadblock for straw purchases, state legislation was introduced in 2007 to make it mandatory statewide that guns stolen or lost be reported to authorities.
The bill also would have required state police to maintain a registry of such firearms to aid police in tracking down straw purchases and getting illegal gun-possession convictions.
The bill never made it out of committee.
Frustrated city officials began passing their own ordinances requiring reporting. In addition to Lancaster, nearby cities passing such laws include Harrisburg and Reading.
The mayors' initiative passed a key test in 2009, when Commonwealth Court ruled that although only the Legislature has the authority to enact gun laws, municipalities could require reporting of lost or stolen guns.
That same year, a statewide mandatory reporting initiative gained renewed strength from outrage over the shooting of Montgomery County police Officer Bradley Fox. The weapon used to kill him turned out to be one of nine guns bought by a straw purchaser for the gunman, a convicted felon.
However, legislators stripped the mandatory-reporting provision from the bill. Instead, the so-called Bradley Fox Bill signed into law by Gov. Tom Corbett in October 2012 mandates a 5- to 10-year sentence for anyone convicted of making multiple straw purchases.
On the surface, the city's 4-year-old mandatory reporting ordinance seems to have made little difference.
Some 77 reports of stolen guns have been made to police during that time. But Sadler says that was about the average before the mandatory ordinance went into effect.
Seven people have been charged with receiving stolen property for having illegal guns. But no one is saying the law led to the prosecutions.
Not a single person has been fined under the ordinance for not reporting a stolen gun.
Still, city officials say the ordinance is important in controlling the illegal use of guns. And they say it has nothing to do with some sinister plot to deprive city residents of their Second Amendment rights.
"I have a motorcycle. I understand how people feel about their firearms. I don't want to take guns away from my friends," Gray says.
But he notes that the constitutional right of freedom of speech still has reasonable limits, such as libel and slander laws.
Sadler dismisses the argument of critics, such as the NRA, who argue that people who really don't know their guns were stolen will be prosecuted.
"I've gotten in debates," Sadler says, "and been told, 'You're going to be locking up old ladies.' I know a lot of gun owners. I haven't met any of these folks yet who don't keep track of them. I know people who own several hundred guns. They could probably name their serial numbers."
And if there are people who don't know the whereabouts of guns around the house, then maybe the ordinance is just the wake-up call they need, he suggests.
"If nothing else, the law-abiding citizens, when they see the law and don't know where their guns are, they need to make sure they know where they are. It erases all kinds of bad experiences."
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