Seven pawnshops cited over sales of firearms

September 17, 1994|By Eric Siegel | Eric Siegel,Sun Staff Writer

Baltimore officials took aim at the proliferation of guns on city streets with a new weapon yesterday, using an obscure zoning law to crack down on seven pawnshops illegally selling firearms.

One pawnshop was briefly shut down and six others received violation notices, as officials enforced for the first time laws from the 1980s requiring a special permit to sell guns.

The seven pawnshops sold more than 400 rifles and shotguns between January 1993 and last month, according to figures compiled by the local office of the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms (ATF).

Of those sales, 58 went to convicted felons who apparently lied about their backgrounds on required forms, in violation of federal law, officials said.

Those cases will be referred to the U.S. attorney's office for possible prosecution, said Special Agent Margaret Moore, head of the ATF's Baltimore Field Division.

Police officials applauded the enforcement effort.

"We're interested in any effort that can take guns off the streets," said Col. Leon A. Tomlin, head of the Neighborhood Patrol Bureau.

But pawnshop owners criticized the city for portraying their gun sales as a major problem.

"It's grandstanding," said Steven Samuelson, owner of Boston Loan Office, one of the six businesses that received violation notices. He also heads the 25-member Pawnbrokers Association Baltimore City.

Sending a message

Each of the seven pawnshops had the required federal licenses to sell guns. But officials said the shops did not have the special city permit, which since 1987 has required a public hearing and zoning board approval.

"What we're saying now is that we're enforcing the zoning code," city Housing Commissioner Daniel P. Henson III said in announcing the action. "We want to send a message."

The action was described yesterday as the second phase in a coordinated city, state and federal effort to reduce the number of guns in Baltimore.

In the first phase, in May, more than 30 "straw" purchasers were charged with buying guns for criminals who would not otherwise qualify to buy them.

The next step will be to go after individuals who run gun businesses out of their homes, operations that also could violate city zoning laws, officials said.

They count 86 home-based gun businesses in the city.

After the crackdown on pawnshops was announced at the city Housing Department on East Fayette Street yesterday morning, housing officials led reporters and television cameras to Livingston's Loans, a fixture at the eastern end of The Block for decades. There, they delivered a notice revoking the company's occupancy permit, citing its violation of zoning laws.

Livingston's workers ceremoniously lowered the blinds over the entrance and locked the door, closing the business.

Closed shop reopens

By late afternoon, however, Livingston's reopened after the business obtained a permit allowing it to operate its pawn business -- though not to sell or display guns.

One of the pawnshop's owners criticized city officials for not contacting the business before summoning the news media.

"This is absurd, to walk in a business with no warning," said Joseph D. Triplett, Livingston's manager and one of three co-owners.

The pawnshop's attorney, Steven A. Allen, said Livingston's would appeal the city action. He contended that the zoning laws should not apply to the pawnshop because it was selling rifles and shotguns before the laws were passed.

Although six pawnshops were simply given violation notices, Livingston's occupancy permit was revoked because it had applied for the special city zoning permit in 1991 and had been turned down.

That showed that the pawnshop's owners knew about the law, '' officials said.

Besides Boston Loan at 426 W. Baltimore St., other pawnshops receiving violation notices yesterday were: Anchor Arms, 3419 Belair Road; Westside Gold and Diamond Brokers, 1127 W. Baltimore St.; B. Allen Brokers, 3500 Eastern Ave.; Happy Hocker Inc., 39 E. Cross St.; and Liberty Gold Brokers, 2141 W. Patapsco Ave.

If those pawnshops do not stop selling guns, they could be subject to fines of up to $500 a day, city officials said.

Agent Moore of the ATF said at yesterday's news conference that nearly a third of the 3,600 guns recovered by authorities last year were older guns bought mostly from pawnshops and gun shows.

But Mr. Samuelson said 90 percent of the guns sold by pawn shops were actually redeemed by the people who had pawned them, not guns sold over the counter to potential criminals.

He said Boston Loan, licensed by the ATF to sell rifles and shotguns since the late 1960s, should not have been affected by the 1980s laws.

Sixteen businesses are allowed to continue selling guns on that basis, officials said.

Michael Fronczak, an ATF compliance official, confirmed that Boston Loan had been issued an ATF license in 1969. But Zack Germroth, a Housing Department spokesman, sid, "This is something we'll have to reconcile Monday."

Mr. Samuelson removed the dozen guns he had on display yesterday and said he would stop selling guns until the matter was resolved.

Holding his fingers an inch apart, he said, "It's this much of my business."

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