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Minneapolis cracking down on straw gun buyers

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Gun shop owner
Mark Kocielski owns a gun shop in Minneapolis. He says he will immediately cancel a sale if the person buying the gun isn't the one filling out the paperwork.
MPR Photo/Brandt Williams

Most of the 33 people killed in Minneapolis homicides so far this year have been shot, many likely by people who cannot legally buy guns.

Law enforcement officials say people who commit violent gun crimes nearly always get their weapons through a gray market, buying them from straw buyers, or people who can legally purchase them. That has federal agents stepping up their efforts to crack down on such illegal transactions.

Many straw buyers are sophisticated, said BJ Zapor, a special agent with the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives. They often legally buy several guns at a time, or buy one gun at a time from different stores, then sell the weapons for a profit.

Zapor calls such enterprises micro-trafficking. In the past, some people caught for the offense in Minneapolis may have avoided prosecution in federal court, but not any more.

"Now we're doing the smaller numbers if they're associated with these crimes of violence that are happening, particularly the shootings and the homicides," Zapor said. "So that micro-trafficking scheme -- those that are bringing firearms into that community -- are going to be investigated and potentially charged and prosecuted as well as the people who end up with them and using them in crime." 

The new focus is part of a collaboration between Minneapolis and Dakota County law enforcement called Project Exile. It aims to deter gun violence by issuing tougher federal penalties to people caught illegally possessing a gun or illegally supplying a gun.  

A front line in the battle to keep illegal guns off the streets is the gun store, like Mark Koscielski's shop in south Minneapolis.

Visitors must ring a bell and wait for Koscielski to buzz them in to his shop, which has covered windows to block the sunlight. Florescent lights illuminate the matte-gray and black handguns under glass cases.

Kocielski said he wants to make sure that people who buy guns from him aren't buying them for people who aren't supposed to have them.

There are a couple different ways a straw purchase can happen, he said.  In one common scenario, a man and a woman enter the store.  The man appears the most interested in buying the gun.

"The guy says, well we will take this one," Kocielski said. "I hand him the federal Form 4473 form to fill out.  He hands it to his girlfriend or his wife.  That is a clear violation."

The form, a firearms transaction record that must be submitted by dealers and would-be customers, records a buyer's name, address and driver's license information. It also requires buyers to certify that they are eligible to purchase a firearm.

Koscielski said there are two reasons why the guy won't submit his name for the federal background check. One, he is under 21 or a felon, and can't legally possess a gun. Or, the man is planning to use it to commit a crime and doesn't want to have the gun traced back to him.

If it's clear that the person interested in the gun isn't the one filling out the form, Koscielski said he will cancel the sale. That can trigger some angry responses.

"Every word you can think I have been called," he said. "I've been threatened to be sued.  And they leave."

Anti-gun violence advocates support the new effort to crack down on illicit firearms. Heather Martens, executive director of Citizens for a Safer Minnesota, said it can be hard for police to catch a straw buyer, even when a gun bought in a straw purchase turns up in a crime investigation.

"One of the problems that they face is that if they go to that buyer and say, this gun you bought turned up in a crime, the person can say, 'oh the gun was stolen.' " Martens said. "And then that's it.  It's hard to build a case in that case."

Martens supports a proposed law that would compel people to report stolen guns. She also supports a state House bill that would require unlicensed gun sellers at gun shows to conduct background checks.  The bill -- HF 2960 -- never received a hearing.