Biography of a Gun

FROM OUR ARCHIVES: Tracking the history of a gun used in a recent Chicago shooting provides a revealing account of how guns get into criminals’ hands, and how unapproved purchases easily evade the state’s gun-control laws.

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It took CAGE agents more than a month to make the connection to Edmondson, because someone mistyped the gun’s serial number during the initial computer trace. But the investigation quickly gained momentum. Working with the state police, CAGE initiated a firearms transfer inquiry program, known as an F-TIP, which reveals the number of guns bought by a FOID card holder. As it turned out, Edmondson had bought 13 firearms between August 2000 and September 2002, all of them from suburban gun shops. None of the guns had been reported lost or stolen, according to a computer check.

On May 21, 2003, at around 2 p.m., a group of five officers knocked on the door of the house where Edmondson lived with his mother and asked the whereabouts of the weapons, in particular the Tanfoglio. Startled and nervous, Edmondson at first said he had sold the weapons, according to the written confession he made later to police. The agents pressed for documentation of the sales, required by state law. “That’s when he broke down,” says a CAGE Team arresting officer, who requested anonymity. Edmondson was charged with gunrunning, a felony that carries a potential sentence of up to ten years in prison. In his written statement, Edmondson admitted he sold the weapons to men he knew were gang members.

A former student at DeVry University who spent a year as a low-ranking Black Disciples gang “foot soldier,” Edmondson had loose ties to various gang members around his neighborhood. He told authorities he typically sold guns to the gangs in exchange for marijuana and cash. The Tanfoglio was sold for $325 to an alleged gang member whom Edmondson claimed to know only as Frank, a drug dealer for the gang. According to the confession, Edmondson instructed Frank to scrape off the serial number “if he was going to go out and do some crazy stuff.”

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Pelcher’s Shooters Supply, a tiny stucco building tucked behind a TV and video store just off Ridge Road, the main drag in downtown Lansing, sits about 25 miles from the Loop and is a quick drive from Edmondson’s Burnham home. Edmondson bought six of his 13 guns at Pelcher’s, according to ATF trace data. Taped to the front of a glass counter inside Pelcher’s, a small poster warns purchasers: “Don’t lie for the other guy. Purchase a gun for someone who can’t and buy yourself 10 years in jail.”

Posters notwithstanding, there is very little a gun dealer can do to stop a straw purchaser like George Edmondson from what authorities call lying and buying. He presented a valid FOID card. On the standard firearms transaction record, a form known as a 4473, required for all gun purchases from licensed dealers, he answered yes to the question “Are you the actual buyer of the firearm listed on this form?” He signed a second waiver required by Pelcher’s and passed a criminal background check.

“We do more checks and balances than the Bank of America,” says Larry Pelcher, the 53-year-old owner of Pelcher’s, which has been in business for 28 years. Pelcher, whose shop is not among the dozen being sued by the city, says he has done nothing illegal and denies even selling the gun to Edmondson. He claims that Edmondson bought the Tanfoglio at another shop, Firearms Unlimited, in Hammond, Indiana, and had it transferred to Pelcher’s, which did the background check. ATF data do not support Pelcher’s claims, but information from the Indiana gun shop is unavailable; it closed shortly after its owner, Frank Freund, was murdered during a robbery of his shop in March 2000.

Gun dealers are not legally liable for straw-purchase sales if they reasonably believe the buyer is the real owner. But a study released last June by researchers from the University of California at Los Angeles school of public health found half of 120 gun dealers surveyed nationwide admitted they would sell a handgun to someone they knew was a straw purchaser. Pelcher says he has turned down buyers he suspected were straw purchasers. He claims he has also alerted local police and ATF agents to possible straw-purchase attempts at his store. He says he can’t be blamed if the guns he sells legally end up in the hands of criminals. “I’m not the bad guy. I’m the good guy,” he says. “I don’t want the bad guys to get guns.”

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