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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.

(page 2 of 4)

Although she has recovered from most of her physical injuries, seven-year-old Ashlee Poole is still working through the trauma she suffered. “Remember that Sunday when I was shot?” she frequently asks her mother.

Although the vast majority of crime guns enter Chicago illegally, nearly all the firearms recovered from crimes here (including G20467) are first bought legally, from federally licensed dealers. “All guns start out in the legal market,” says special agent Thomas Ahern, a spokesman for the Chicago division of the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF). “Somewhere down the line they get into the wrong hands.” The journey for G20467 began in Brescia, Italy, at the mouth of the Trompian Valley between Milan and Venice, more than 4,500 miles and one ocean removed from Chicago’s South Side. For centuries, the hilly Brescia region has been a firearms hub, particularly since 1526, when the renowned family business Fabbrica d’Armi Pietro Beretta, the world’s longest-operating gunsmithy, was founded.

Today the Brescia-based Fratelli Tanfoglio is one of Italy’s most prolific handgun producers. Number G20467 was one of the TA90-model pistols manufactured by the company in 1983, coincidentally the same year Chicago instituted its ban on handgun possession. With its sleek nickel–steel alloy frame and matte chrome finish, the TA90 is as menacing looking as it is lethal. A Para. caliber, 15-round nine-millimeter magazine loads into the chamber. It measures about eight inches long and weighs more than two pounds, and it fires as quickly as the user can squeeze the trigger. Although the TA90 has been discontinued, the Blue Book of Gun Values, a pricing guide, says an unused model today typically retails at around $365. ATF data indicate Chicago police traced 23 Tanfoglio firearms last year, a fraction of the thousands of guns eventually connected to crimes.

Most of the guns brought illegally into Chicago do not have to travel as far as G20467. In 2001, U.S. manufacturers forged 623,070 pistols, 320,143 revolvers, 1,284,554 rifles, 679,813 shotguns, and 56,367 machine guns. No one knows the exact number of guns in America today, but by some estimates, there are as many guns as there are people. There are more than eight times as many dealers with federal firearms licenses in the United States (116,000) as McDonald’s restaurants (13,500). In Illinois alone there are approximately 2,200 firearms license holders.

Although the sale of handguns is illegal in Chicago, the city is ringed by a handful of gun shops, some just blocks from the city limits. Altogether, there are 441 federally licensed dealers in suburban Cook County and the five collar counties, according to the latest ATF data. Most of these suburban shops, officials say, are law-abiding businesses that operate responsibly. But a small percentage—fewer than 1 percent, the city says—are responsible for nearly half of all the firearms used in crimes in Chicago. Similarly, a small group of wholesalers are the principal suppliers of these so-called dirty dealers; 6 percent of wholesalers furnish 79 percent of all guns used in crimes in the city, according to information from the ATF’s National Tracing Center.

One south suburban store, for example, is especially notorious. In a recent four-year period, according to analysis of ATF figures by the Washington, D.C.–based not-for-profit Americans for Gun Safety Foundation, Chuck’s Gun Shop in Riverdale sold more guns linked to crimes than any other licensed gun dealer in the nation. Citing ATF records, the group reported last January that Chuck’s sold 2,370 guns between 1996 and 2000 that were recovered by police and traced to crimes. (The shop’s manager, John Riggio, says of the report, “You can do a lot of things with numbers. That’s all I’m going to say.") Thirteen other gun dealers in the state—all but two were from Chicago’s suburbs—were ranked by the  Americans for Gun Safety Foundation among the top 120 dealers nationwide in supplying guns to criminals. Seven northwest Indiana gun shops also made the list.

The most common sources of guns used in crimes, the ATF reports, are “straw purchasers,” individuals with valid firearm owner’s identification cards who have passed criminal background checks and can buy guns legally, but do so on behalf of others. In most straw-purchase situations, Mike Smith says, a shill—typically a drug user, perhaps a family member or girlfriend with a clean criminal record—buys a gun and either gives it or resells it to someone else. Prohibited purchasers are mainly convicted felons, gang members, drug dealers, and juveniles.

Six years ago, Mayor Richard M. Daley authorized the Chicago Police Department to investigate Chicago-area gun stores to see if retailers were knowingly selling firearms to criminals and straw purchasers. Over three months, cops posing as gang members, motorcycle toughs, and right-wing militia types bought 171 handguns from 12 suburban gun shops. The officers reported that the dealers routinely ignored obvious straw deals or apparently dangerous purchasers. In one case, a clerk at B & H Sports, Ltd., a gun shop in Oak Lawn that is now out of business, allegedly sold a weapon to an officer who said he needed it to retaliate against someone who owed him money. “You made a good choice,” the clerk told him after selling him the firearm, according to police documents. “This will take care of business.”

The sting became the basis for a $433-million public nuisance suit filed by the city in November 1998 against 22 gunmakers, four distributors, and the 12 suburban gun shops. The lawsuit, which seeks to recover the immense costs the city has incurred because of illegal guns, was dismissed by a circuit court in December 2000, but the city has appealed to the state supreme court.

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A typical shooting investigation takes two tracks: A team of homicide or violent-crime detectives tries to determine who pulled the trigger; if a firearm is recovered, a second set of investigators from the Chicago Anti-Gun Enforcement (CAGE) Team tries to establish who supplied the firearm to the shooter (and whether the transaction was legal).

Within days of Ashlee’s shooting, police had arrested four alleged gang members—Jimmie Jones Jr., 18; Lennar Jackson, 18; Montreal Thomas, 26; and Michael Ruffin, 27—in connection with the crime. All were charged with various counts of attempted murder, aggravated battery with a firearm, and unlawful possession. Jones and Jackson, who prosecutors allege were the ringleaders, were indicted on 19 counts each. Thomas was charged on nine counts, and Ruffin on 13.

Police accounts and court records say the shooting developed as follows: Jones had been hanging out with his girlfriend at her home across the street from Ashlee’s house, when some neighborhood men approached him. The meeting escalated to confrontation as one man, authorities say, grabbed Jones’s gold chain, breaking it, and then threw dirt and debris into his car. Humiliated, Jones met up with Jackson, Thomas, and Ruffin at 64th and Paulina streets to discuss retaliation, according to the assistant state’s attorney who is working on the case.
The foursome, riding in Thomas’s blue Astro, allegedly pulled up to 61st and Wood streets and spotted their antagonists loitering around the corner store not far from Ashlee’s home on Hermitage Avenue. Then everything went haywire—about 20 rounds of haywire, according to police records.

The gun numbered G20467 was found three days later in the blue van and taken to the Illinois State Police forensics lab at Damen Avenue and Roosevelt Road. To track the history of a suspicious firearm, CAGE agents contact the ATF National Tracing Center in Falling Waters, West Virginia, which searches for the origins of the majority of guns recovered after being used in crimes. In 2003, the center tracked the history of about 280,000 guns nationwide, including 6,542 in Chicago.

Housed in a former Internal Revenue Service warehouse, the tracing center has a state-of-the-art appearance on the outside, but inside it is a sprawling storage room, filled with 400 million records documenting gun imports and purchases. Many are stored on microfiche or on sheets of paper in cardboard boxes. “Remember that scene in Raiders of the Lost Ark?” one officer asks, referring to the movie’s famous final moment—a wide-angle shot of a gigantic storehouse filled with endless rows of seemingly identical wood crates. “That’s what it looks like.”

Despite its archaic methods, the bureau can trace a gun by the serial number from its manufacturer to an importer or a wholesaler to the first retailer and finally to its initial owner. Routine traces can take two weeks or more. For most violent gun crimes, agents can request an urgent trace, which is usually completed within 24 hours.

CAGE agents learned that the trail of G20467 led from Italy to Excam, a firearms importer in Hialeah, Florida, then to Valley Gun Distributors in Northridge, California, on March 16, 1989. The gun was transferred the same day to Interstate Arms Corporation in Ontario, California. On March 29th, G20467 arrived in Illinois, at the Calumet City Gun Shop. More than 11 years passed before the Tanfoglio landed on June 19, 2000, at Pelcher’s Shooters Supply, a gun shop in south suburban Lansing. (Those 11 years will remain a mystery due to recently passed legislation that bars all information regarding crime gun traces from being placed in the public record. See “The Trail Grows Cold,” page 85.) ATF records indicate that George Edmondson, a 24-year-old telephone repairman from south suburban Burnham, bought the gun at Pelcher’s on February 16, 2001. It is not clear what Edmondson paid, or even whether the gun had ever been used at that point.

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Photograph: Suzy PolinG



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