Selling Guns and Ammo to Killers Is Good, Steady Business

August 16, 1994|By RAY JENKINS

As I finished reading the wrenching story of the murder Wednesday of Igor Berenshteyn, I was overcome by the despairing thought that quite likely I saw his killers just a few hours before they carried out their deadly work; that I knew they were planning to kill someone like Igor; and that there was nothing I could do about it.

Last Wednesday -- the day of the Russian immigrant's murder while delivering pizza -- I happened to be passing a gun shop on the charred edges of inner-city Baltimore.

From all outward appearances it was about the only prosperous business in an old commercial district where most shops have gone to seed. The gun store was an attractive new building with small barred windows that made it difficult to peer inside.

On pure reckless impulse, I decided to go into the store.

As the door closed behind me, I was greeted by the rank smell of oiled leather, gun belts and holsters, no doubt.

As my eyes adjusted to the dim fluorescent lights, I could see little knots of customers peering into the immaculate glass cases which were filled with dozens of pistols; one had a gleaming stainless-steel barrel at least a foot long.

At once I saw that all of the dozen or so customers were young men dressed in cutoffs, the uniform of the street. In clusters of three or four they exchanged muffled inscrutable conversation in the funereal quiet.

Behind the counter stood a man of about 50, with a well-clipped pencil mustache and steel-gray hair which swept back in pompadour waves.

He wore an immobile stony countenance, and his tinted glasses, covering eyes as hard as the blue-steel pistols in the glass cases, evoked the chilling impression of a Mafia hit man in a Grade B police movie of the 1940s.

He was completing the sale of a small box of pistol bullets to two men who appeared to be in their late teens.

Suddenly I was seized by an alarming thought: By this time tomorrow one of those bullets may well be lodged in the brain of someone who is, at this moment, a perfectly healthy human being.

No one involved in the transaction labored under any illusion as to the purpose of the merchandise changing hands; the sole purpose was to kill or maim a human being.

Yet the sale took place as perfunctorily as a postal clerk might sell a book of stamps, or a grocer a loaf of bread.

When my turn came, I asked if the store carried fishing equipment. No, said the man behind the counter in a kind of low growl, but I could find such items in a store just around the corner. He gave me precise directions to get there.

As I left, a customer, no more than 19, asked if he could see a certain pistol.

When I reached the sunlight of the street I shuddered and looked furtively about me; it was as if I feared someone might have seen me coming out of a brothel.

These dark thoughts flooded back into my mind as I read of the murder of Igor Berenshteyn, a man about the age of the customers I saw in the gun store.

I wondered whether the man who sold that deadly merchandise had read the story.

He is, after all, complicit in a cold-blooded murder; yet he pocketed the profit and opened his business as usual the next morning.

I cannot say with certainty that the bullets which I saw sold on Wednesday morning were used that night to kill Igor as he delivered pizzas.

But I can say with much certainty that his killers made just such a purchase at one or another of the 56 gun stores currently listed in the Yellow Pages of the Baltimore telephone directory.

There is not another country in the civilized world that would for one moment countenance such perfectly legal transactions as the one I witnessed.

And yet, two days after Igor Berenshteyn was killed the elected lawmakers of the United States rejected the most modest proposal to slow this deadly commerce.

Ray Jenkins is the retired editor of The Evening Sun's editorial pages.

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