OLDSMAR — On probation for misdemeanor battery and for carrying a knife to his high school, Benjamin Bishop had no way to legally purchase the 12-gauge shotgun authorities say he used to kill his mother and her boyfriend Sunday.
Instead, the 18-year-old Oldsmar resident gave $279 to a friend, who bought the gun for him, sheriff's deputies said.
Under the laws of the state of Florida, that friend did not commit a crime.
The chilling double-murder of Imari Shibata and Kelley Allen at their home in Oldsmar has called attention to a little scrutinized aspect of Florida's gun laws: the absence of penalties for so-called "straw buyers" who knowingly purchase firearms for others prohibited from owning them.
While states from Pennsylvania to Colorado have passed legislation targeting such purchases, Florida statutes are silent on the practice. Straw buyers can theoretically be prosecuted under federal law for misrepresenting themselves at the time of sale, but those familiar with the issue say the cases are often given short shrift by the slow-moving bureaucracy of the U.S. government.
The Bishop case has brought painful clarity to ways in which the status quo hamstrings law enforcement.
Bishop's straw buyer — an 18-year-old friend from Oldsmar whose identity the Pinellas County Sheriff's Office has not released, citing an ongoing investigation — told detectives that Bishop said he needed the gun for protection from gangs.
The friend knew that Bishop, a schizophrenic who had struggled with drug addiction, was prevented by his criminal record from buying the weapon himself, according to Pinellas Sheriff Bob Gualtieri.
"I wholeheartedly feel that there should be some accountability for this guy. You don't go buy a gun for somebody you know can't buy one," said Gualtieri, who pored over Florida's statutes with the Pinellas-Pasco State Attorney's Office before reluctantly concluding that no state law was broken.
"I'm a little frustrated by it. I would like to have something to charge this guy with," Gualtieri said. "Maybe this is something we need to look at as part of an upcoming legislative agenda."
The Sheriff's Office has referred the gun-buyer's case to the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms, which may or may not press charges. A spokesman from the ATF office in Tampa did not respond to requests for comment Thursday.
'Crazy' status quo?
The closest Florida law comes to punishing straw purchases is the offense of aiding a felon in possession of a firearm.
However, there are other reasons short of a felony conviction that someone might be prevented from buying a gun: misdemeanor probation or parole, domestic violence protective orders, mental illness. Bishop, who is being held without bail at the Pinellas County Jail on first-degree murder charges, was not a convicted felon at the time his gun was bought.
Gun customers must state on an ATF form that they are the "actual" purchasers of the weapons sold to them and are not buying "on behalf of another person." Those who lie commit a federal crime punishable by up to 10 years in prison. The problem is that ATF agents seldom have the resources to devote attention to weapons purchases on a small scale, said Laura Cutilletta, senior staff attorney at the Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence in San Francisco.
"The enforcement mechanism for federal law is the ATF, and they're very much under-resourced," Cutilletta said. "If the state has its own laws, then the state can use its own prosecutors and court system."
California, Pennsylvania, Colorado, Ohio, Illinois, Oregon, Nebraska, Maryland and Delaware all have statutes that specifically make it a crime to knowingly buy a gun for someone ineligible to possess it, according to the Law Center.
In Pennsylvania, legislation this month actually stiffened punishments for straw buyers, creating a mandatory five-year prison sentence for those who try to conduct multiple gun purchases on behalf of others. The law was named after Brad Fox, a 34-year-old police officer in Plymouth Township, Pa., who was fatally shot with a straw-purchased gun in September.
Shira Goodman is executive director of CeaseFirePA, a Pennsylvania organization that supported the law. She said she was surprised to hear Florida has no laws that address straw buying.
"It seems crazy to me," she said. "I'm almost speechless."
Open to change
Ron Silver, a Miami-area Democrat who served 24 years in the Florida Legislature and chaired both the House and Senate criminal justice committees, said a bill to prohibit straw buying didn't come up during his tenure.
"I never thought about it," he said. "There should be a law like that, absolutely."
State Sen. Greg Evers, a Panhandle Republican known for hard-line positions on Second Amendment rights, said he is open to considering some form of straw-purchase ban, given the circumstances of the Bishop case.
"This could be something that could need some attention," Evers said. "I guess the best thing I can say is we need to analyze the situation and see what happened."
After learning from the Tampa Bay Times that the Sheriff's Office had no way to charge the man who allegedly bought the gun used in the Oldsmar killings, state Rep. Darryl Rouson said he would draft a bill to penalize straw purchasers of guns that are later used in crimes.
"Sometimes you worry about having too many laws on the books," said Rouson, a Democrat from St. Petersburg. "But one more where you stop a double murder, or one more where you save a life, doesn't strike me as overreaching."
One Tallahassee figure sees no need for change: Marion Hammer, the powerful lobbyist who heads the National Rifle Association's state affiliate, the Unified Sportsmen of Florida. Hammer said the existing federal ban on straw buying is sufficient.
"You don't need for every state to duplicate federal crimes," she said. "I think that if they want to prosecute a federal crime, and they can't get the feds to do it, they have ways to do it. And complaining about the law is just an excuse."
Peter Jamison can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 445-4157.