Semiautomatic weapons are being acquired increasingly through "straw purchases" from licensed gun shops to arm Baltimore's drug dealers, according to federal and local law enforcement officials.
Drug traffickers give money to people with no criminal records -- usually relatives or friends -- to purchase the weapons, authorities say. In Maryland, all that is required for a gun purchase is valid identification and a seven-day waiting period for a background check.
The method is simple, and there is no paper trail to the person who actually comes to possess the gun.
Police say traffickers are spending large sums from their illegal .. profits to buy the latest weaponry, leaving officers outgunned and further frightening many city residents with the nightly cacophony of rapid fire.
"The days of the Saturday night special and the .38 [-caliber pistol] have been over for the past year and a half in Baltimore," said David C. Troy, special agent for the Washington district of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms, which includes Maryland and Virginia.
"The weapon of choice for the violent criminal and the drug dealer is the 9mm semiautomatic handgun," he said. "Some people want to deal on the black market, but other people are more concerned about being ripped off and don't want to take the chance with getting caught up in a sting."
Consequently, while weapons continue to be stolen and sold on the black market, criminals are relying increasingly on over-the-counter purchases, sometimes involving thousands of dollars, at local gun shops.
Federal law enforcement officers have joined local police in stepping up efforts to staunch the flow of semiautomatic weapons to Baltimore's drug traffickers, opening a new office here and assigning additional agents specifically to investigate how guns are acquired.
In a case in East Baltimore last month, a reputed lieutenant of a cocaine trafficking organization was charged with four state handgun law violations after a woman -- his cousin -- allegedly spent more than $6,000 of his money at a local gun shop to purchase 11 semiautomatic weapons and ammunition.
The cousin was charged with four handgun conspiracy violations for her part in the alleged straw purchases.
Special Agent Troy of the BATF also said a Southeast Baltimore gun dealer was convicted earlier this year in the sale of semiautomatic weapons directly to drug dealers in undocumented transactions.
Despite such enforcement successes, Baltimore's criminals, like their counterparts in Miami, Detroit and New York City, are said to have turned the corner in acquiring large supplies of high-powered semiautomatic weaponry.
"These people [drug dealers] make obscene amounts of money, and they only buy the best," said Special Agent Troy. "You couldn't sell them a Saturday night special."
Drug dealers are "switching to the legitimate market because of the unavailability of the type of guns they want on the black market," said police Officer Edward C. Bochniak, a member of the Eastern District's drug enforcement unit. "It's easier to obtain them legitimately. All you need is someone without a criminal record, and a drug dealer can get his hands on any gun he chooses."
In some cases, police say, the drug traffickers accompany the person who's to make the purchase in order to point out the weapons. Officer Bochniak said the reputed East Baltimore drug lieutenant arrested last month had acquired, through the straw purchases, the following weapons from one local gun shop:
* An Israeli-made .44-caliber Desert Eagle semiautomatic pistol.
* A Calico semiautomatic pistol with a 17-inch barrel and two 50-round clips.
* A Cobray 12-gauge, 12-shot assault shotgun.
* A Mac-11 9mm semiautomatic pistol.
* Two laser-sighted semiautomatic pistols.
The guns in the arsenal of the reputed drug lieutenant may have been used in at least a half dozen shootings in East Baltimore, according to the police, who add that weapons are now routinely rented out on the streets for use in crimes.
Such rentals are increasingly arming teen-age drug dealers on the street, police said. They are investigating a shooting last month in the 800 block of East Chase Street in which a 12-year-old drug dealer is alleged to have rented a handgun from a 14-year-old friend to shoot a 21-year-old addict he accused of stealing drugs.
"These guns are passed around quite a bit," said Officer Richard Long III, who has investigated all of the Eastern District's 130-plus drug-related shootings this year. "In the majority of the cases, we never find the gun. All we have is a shooting victim."