Tuesday, May 22, 2018
Public safety

Gaps in gun laws a boon for felons in Florida, experts say

CLEARWATER — Floridians don't agree on much when it comes to gun control. But they agree guns should be kept out of the hands of people like Son Uong.

The 37-year-old Clearwater resident was arrested Dec. 15 with a loaded semiautomatic handgun in his pocket and an assault rifle in the trunk of his car, physically assaulting a Clearwater Beach parking attendant over a pair of $20 tickets, according to police.

Convicted of felony burglary in 1994, Uong should not have been able to have those weapons, nor the 348 rounds of ammunition he had with him, stored in high-capacity magazines.

Permissive in some respects, Florida firearms laws unequivocally aim to prevent gun ownership by convicted felons. But that prohibition is faltering.

Florida Department of Law Enforcement records show that statewide, there were 3,479 arrests of felons who illegally possessed guns or ammunition from Jan. 1 to Dec. 1 this year. That's an average of more than 10 arrests every day of people who obtained weapons despite serious criminal records.

Uong's arrest was the 239th of a felon found in possession of guns or ammunition in Pinellas County in 2012, and one of 750 this year in the four counties of the Tampa Bay area, according to statistics obtained by the Tampa Bay Times. (The statistics include a small number of repeat offenders arrested more than once.) State and local figures exclude the unknown number of firearm-bearing convicts who evade police scrutiny.

Since the shooting rampage that claimed the lives of 20 children and six adults at an elementary school in Newtown, Conn., legislators and activists at every level of government have debated whether more and better gun laws are needed.

In Florida, Uong and others like him illustrate how gaps in regulation can make it difficult to enforce the laws the state already has.

While Florida statutes echo federal laws that prevent felons from owning weapons, the state does not require background checks for many purchases.

Buyers and sellers are not obligated to keep records of weapons sales; to the contrary, creating or maintaining a list of firearms owners is a felony under state law. (The rationale for this curious statute is that the list might be used to target gun owners for robberies.)

There is no state limit on the number of guns a person can buy at one time, allowing anybody to build a private arsenal they can keep or dispense to others.

"If I wanted to create a system that would make it easy for criminals and mentally ill people to get guns, I would design it based on Florida's system," said Arthur Hayhoe of the Florida Coalition to Stop Gun Violence. "If you can't decrease the number of ways you can get a gun, we'll never be able to control this."

Robyn Thomas, executive director of the Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence in San Francisco, said one of the most common avenues to weapons for those who can't legally own them are "private" purchases. Private, in this case, simply means a transaction with a seller who is not federally licensed to deal in guns.

Often called the "gun-show loophole" because many private sales take place at or around gun exhibitions, the exemption applies no matter where a firearm is bought, including online and at flea markets. Florida is one of a number of states that do not require background checks for such purchases — which are also not regulated by the federal government — making them an easy first resort for those whose criminal records might halt a sale at a licensed establishment.

State law allows counties to pass local ordinances requiring background checks at gun shows. Among Tampa Bay counties, that step has been taken by Pinellas, Hillsborough and Hernando, but not Pasco. Critics question how vigorously the local laws that have been enacted are enforced, and note that determined buyers can easily travel to counties that lack restrictions.

So-called "straw buyers" enlisted to buy a gun on a prohibited person's behalf are another means of access to weapons, Thomas said.

Delano Reid, special agent in charge for the Tampa division of the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF), said thefts from homes and gun stores are another way that weapons flow to criminals outside legal channels.

Such robberies can occur anywhere, but Reid said ATF agents in Florida face other challenges that their counterparts in states with stricter gun laws don't have to worry about.

He summarized the challenges in a word: availability.

"You have the pawn shops selling them," he said. "You have the gun shows selling them. You don't have those in gun-restricted states." He said the document-free flow of guns among sellers and buyers makes it more difficult to steer guns away from felons or to trace weapons that are used in crimes.

"In New York, if you have a handgun permit and your gun turns up in a crime, they would ask you about it," Reid said. Here, he said, "That process, through the gun-show loophole, is taken away from you."

Sean Caranna, executive director of the gun-rights group Florida Carry, said felons won't be prevented from getting guns by beefing up the firearm-possession laws already on the books. But such measures could unfairly penalize others, he argued.

Tighter regulation of private gun sales, he said, could impose unfair costs on both buyers and sellers. In states with such regulations, gun transfers and background checks between private parties typically take place in the presence of a licensed firearms dealer, who charges a fee.

Caranna dismissed another idea popular among gun-control advocates — a purchase limit of one gun per person per month — saying that many law-abiding gun enthusiasts might have a valid desire to buy more.

"By hook or by crook," he said, criminals "are going to go out on the street and get guns, or they're going to steal them. Cracking down on law-abiding gun owners is just really not going to solve that problem."

Peter Jamison can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 445-4157.

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