'Straw man' buys 27 guns and thugs' arsenal grows

January 04, 1996|By MICHAEL OLESKER

When law enforcement people arrived at this 21-year-old kid's Severna Park home last September, they wanted to talk about guns.

"What guns?" asked the kid.

"The 27 guns you bought from Glen Burnie pawnshops," said state police and federal Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms agents. "Can we see them?"

"Oh, those," said the kid. He said he was a collector. He said he hadn't done anything wrong. He said, sure, the police could see the guns. Then he changed his mind.

Now the kid's parents came to the door. "What guns?" they said. "There are no guns in our house."

"Uh, they're at my cousin's," the kid said now. Unfortunately, the cousin drove up moments later. "Guns?" he said. He didn't have any guns.

Now, say the state police, they've discovered just where the guns went: to South Baltimore's Cherry Hill community, to people involved in the narcotics business, to those with criminal records that prevented them from buying weapons from a gun shop or a pawnbroker, and so they use people like this kid in Severna Park to make straw-man purchases.

Such business is lately in the news, as the governor of Maryland, Parris N. Glendening, attempts to stiffen the gun control laws and the state police begin tracking gun purchases as never before.

They do this for obvious reasons. A year ago, 719 people were killed by guns across this state, some accidentally but most of them on purpose. The police say there are about 900,000 registered guns in Maryland, but an additional 300,000 illegal ones on the streets. Many are used to commit crimes. In the face of this, state police last summer initiated Operation Maryland Cease Fire, wherein they telephone those who have purchased several guns at a time. It's an attempt to track down so-called straw-man purchases.

"So far," police spokesman Michael J. McKelvin said yesterday, "we've made a hundred phone calls. From that small number, we've put together 10 criminal cases. All came from narcotics involvement."

Not everyone sees this as a healthy gesture. Cecil County State Sen. Walter Baker, for example. He called the phone calls "a witch hunt." He called them "Gestapo tactics." He said the tactics make him less sympathetic to a new package of gun control laws Governor Glendening is proposing, including laws requiring buyers of handguns to be licensed and trained, and limiting the number of handgun purchases to one a month.

Baker is chairman of the Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee, which reviews gun control laws.

"I've heard about his reaction," Detective Jack Simpson said yesterday. He heads the Cease Fire operation's Firearms Investigation Unit. "The thing is, if I offered to take some of these people into rough neighborhoods, into certain parts of East Baltimore, maybe, they'd say 'no.' They'd say, 'I'm not going there, there's too many guns on the street.' So that's what we're trying to eliminate."

Anybody have a problem with that? In 1994 across the state, guns were used in more than 5,000 cases of aggravated assault, which is essentially a murder possibility that isn't quite successful. In 1995, there were 325 homicides in the city of Baltimore. In the first moments of 1996, holiday revelers took out guns and commenced firing for the hell of it. They blasted cars on West Lexington Street. They shot out the back window of a police cruiser. They fired rounds into the air.

Arms have gotten out of hand.

"What we have," Michael McKelvin was saying now, "is people buying four guns at a time, or 30 at a time. You get somebody with a criminal record who can't buy the guns himself. He goes to some junkie who hasn't got a record yet. Says to him, 'I'll give you two rocks of crack for every gun you buy.'

"Some of these guys will go right into the gun store with the junkie, and they'll point out what they want him to buy. They'll give 'em the money right in the shop, or right on the parking lot. They walk out of there with 12 guns and ammunition, and they're ready to go to war."

Every time the guns are used illegally, communities lose a piece of that war. So they wish to fight back now, using the straw-man purchases as a new weapon.

If Senator Baker considers any of this "Gestapo tactics," that's his problem.

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