Once-legal guns fill kilers' arsenals

March 13, 1994|By Scott Shane | Scott Shane,Sun Staff Writer

In the early evening darkness of Jan. 2, 1993, Warren Stuckey walked up behind Larry Erickson, his childhood friend and fellow drug dealer, pulled out a .380-caliber Beretta semiautomatic handgun and shot him in the neck.

Stuckey ordered another dealer to drag the dying man from Oakmont Avenue in Northwest Baltimore into an alley. He frisked Erickson, finding in the waistband of his trousers a .357-caliber Smith & Wesson revolver. Lifting Erickson by the collar, he fired the revolver into the victim's forehead.

It was the second of 353 murders in Baltimore last year, a dismal record that could never have been set if it were not for the efficient killing power and easy availability of the handgun, the weapon of choice for seven out of 10 murderers in the city.

For a city and a country inured to gun violence, it was the most ordinary of murders, one that barely made the news: one unknown young man killing another on a drug corner where gunfire echoes nightly.

But the fatal gunshots that night were the last act in a long and complex drama, the end of a winding trail of fear and good intentions, commerce and loopholes in state regulation. Along that trail was a proud family business whose product happens to be firearms; the well-stocked ammunition counter at Kmart; a suburbanite who sought the protection of a revolver; a bar owner nervous on his way to the bank; a burglar looking for loot; and a murky chain of gun sales.

The inescapable fact is that America's two gun cultures, the legal and the illegal, combined to kill Larry Erickson.

From the criminal gun culture, with the drug corner at its core, came Stuckey, a young man capable of casual violence over any real or imagined slight.

From the legal gun culture, built on $9 billion in annual firearms sales, came the equipment, the "piece" Stuckey was rarely without and the bullets to go with it.

The pistol kept its traditional American promise to Warren Stuckey. For two centuries, the gun in folklore and life has bestowed an instant and lethal power: the power to do good, in the romance of U.S. legend, in the gun industry's advertising and in the hands of police officers and good citizens. Or the power to do harm, in the rhetoric of gun control partisans and in the hands of curious toddlers and suicidal teen-agers, enraged boyfriends and drug-dealing thugs such as Warren Stuckey.

In his encounter with Larry Erickson that night, Stuckey needed an equalizer. A slight, soft-spoken man of 22 years, he stands just 5-foot-7, seven inches shorter than Erickson. His nickname from childhood has been "Dinky."

Without the guns, he was a punk, a nuisance. With the guns, he was a terror, one of an army of gunslingers who blight many Baltimore neighborhoods as surely as any foreign army of occupation. Recently convicted in Erickson's murder, charged in two other murders and suspected by police of committing three more, Stuckey was like many of his drug-corner colleagues, only more so.

"Drug dealers would say, 'Dinky shoots 'em in the head. Dinky kills his friends,' " says Baltimore police Detective Harry Edgerton, who arrested him. Stuckey's motives remain obscure; Detective Edgerton believes he extorted money from drug dealers and killed those who resisted.

The gun industry and the National Rifle Association, not surprisingly, strive to blur the myriad links between the legal and illegal gun cultures. They promulgate the incomplete story that criminals get their guns from a murky black market, ignoring the fact that the illicit street gun trade depends on a steady flow of arms from the industry.

But gun control advocates sometimes understate the links as well. By singling out certain categories of guns or ammunition as supposedly favored by criminals -- cheap Saturday Night Specials, assault weapons or hollow-point bullets -- they foster the misimpression that criminals' guns are somehow different from those of law-abiding gun owners.

This week, the Maryland Senate is expected to debate Gov. William Donald Schaefer's proposal to ban 18 kinds of assault weapons. But only a tiny percentage of Maryland murders and other crimes are committed with such weapons.

In fact, criminals' guns do not differ from those of the law-abiding because, in most cases, they are the same guns -- mainstream handguns, like those that killed Larry Erickson, that are owned by hobbyists and crime-wary citizens before they pass into the hands of drug peddlers, robbers and killers.

The sleek $500 Beretta and the classic $400 Smith & Wesson are two of about 1.3 million handguns whose sales were recorded by the Maryland State Police since a registration program began in the 1940s. The total number of handguns circulating in Maryland is probably somewhat higher and is rising fast -- by more than 35,000 last year in dealers' sales alone, or one handgun sold every five minutes during business hours.

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