A look at a sampling of guns seized by the Columbus Police Department in link to different crimes at the city's property room, Thursday afternoon, April 11, 2013. All of these guns will eventually be sent to an undisclosed location to be incinerated. (The Columbus Dispatch / Eamon Queeney)
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COLUMBUS — Federal data released this week show once again that Ohio is a top source for guns involved in crimes in other states. And the state remains among the weakest when it comes to gun laws.
Criminals know that, law-enforcement officials say, so it’s no surprise that Ohio guns show up in so many criminal acts in other states.
“People know they can come to Ohio, get a gun, and take it someplace where there are tougher restrictions,” said Columbus Deputy Police Chief Jeffrey Blackwell. “It happens at gun shows in the sticks and through underground schemes on city streets.”
Sometimes, it’s a lot of guns, such as the 183 that ended up involved in New York crimes, or just one, such as the Ohio gun linked to a crime in Vermont.
In all, 1,601 guns were first legally purchased in Ohio last year and then linked to crimes such as robbery and homicide in 36 other states.
An additional 5,375 guns stayed in Ohio and were linked to crimes in 2012, according to a Columbus Dispatch analysis of data from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives.
In 2011, the number of guns traced back to Ohio from other states was closer to 1,700, with 5,225 staying in the state. Ohio was a top contributor of guns used in crimes in 38 states.
Though not all those guns are linked to trafficking operations, Laura Cutilletta, senior staff attorney for the Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence, says that the trace data illustrate how easy it is to get guns in Ohio.
She said the state has too many loopholes for gun ownership that serve as a “beacon” for a gun-trafficking market.
Wood County Sheriff Mark Wasylyshyn disputed the findings of the report, saying that background checks in Ohio are stricter than in states such as Florida and Virginia, where regulations on gun purchases are not always enforced.
“I had never heard that gun laws are weaker here than in other states,” Sheriff Wasylyshyn.
Lucas County Sheriff John Tharp questioned the results of the report, also dismissing the claims that gun regulations in Ohio are weaker than in other states.
Marisha Goldsmith, 19, of Columbus signs a petition for Jon Menke that advocates mandatory checks at gun shows. The petitions were collected in March and were to be delivered to Sen. Rob Portman.
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Sheriff Tharp pointed out that it would be “premature” to call Ohio a top source for guns involved in out-of-state crimes, as these weapons might have been stolen from the original owners, rather than purchased with the intention of committing crime.
“From my years as a law enforcement officer, it seems to me that most people that legally purchase their guns are not the ones committing crimes,” he said. “We need to look at this further to see what part of Ohio these weapons come from and how they were taken somewhere else.”
Sgt. Joe Heffernan, spokesman for the Toledo Police Department, did not return calls for comment.
By law, background checks are not required for all gun sales — including some online and gun-show sellers.
Ohio doesn’t keep track of who buys guns. Violent misdemeanors, such as domestic violence, don’t disqualify someone from making a firearm purchase.
But gun lobbies argue that there will always be criminals who break the law, no matter how tight the law is.
Now that those lobbies have seemingly halted Congress’ push for tighter gun restrictions, some argue that lawmakers in states across the country could have some effect on gun trafficking in America.
Others argue any more restrictions on gun ownership will affect a constitutional right to bear arms.
It’s hard to end gun trafficking because it’s tough to track the movement of guns.
There’s no national register the federal government can use to show who owns a firearm at any given time.
The ATF each year uses information supplied voluntarily by local law-enforcement agencies around the country to trace guns used in crimes back to a legal purchase. From there, they can discover whether someone illegally bought guns for other people.
First, the agency traces guns involved in crimes to the manufacturer. From there, it finds the shop that first sold it, and the first buyer. Then comes the tricky part: ATF agents have to ask around to figure out how a gun moved from hand to hand.
The data that comes from those investigations is compiled in state-by-state annual reports known as “trace data” that show everything from which types of guns were used in crimes to where they came from.
While there are several limitations to the trace information, it’s the only information of its kind, said Dave Coulson, the Columbus ATF spokesman, adding that it’s “a powerful tool” that provides the bureau with information.
What are the loopholes?
Ohio lawmakers have taken few steps to expand state law further than required by federal law when it comes to guns — a move many other states have taken over the years, according to information from the Denver-based National Conference of State Legislatures, a bipartisan research group.
The Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence, a nonprofit advocacy group founded by attorneys who deem themselves experts on America’s gun laws, gives Ohio’s current law a “D” grade.
“In a lot of states, there are a few violent misdemeanors that would prevent someone from getting a gun,” Ms. Cutilletta said.
“In Ohio, being disqualified for a previously committed crime relies on what the federal government already has. ... You’d essentially have to be a felon to be disqualified from owning a gun.”
Other examples of requirements not found in Ohio law:
● Licenses for gun-owners who want to sell their guns.
●Regulation of the number of guns someone can buy in a given time frame.
●Restrictions on buying a gun in one day’s time. At least two states prohibit same-day purchases.
●Tracking of firearm sales. Gun shops are required to report sales only to the federal government.
●Background checks for all sales.
“When you make it easy to get a gun in a state, I mean, it’s just common sense that people will go there to get a gun, especially in frequent and large amounts,” Ms. Cutilletta said.
The law center used trace data to show that Ohio has been the top “interstate supplier” in the past of guns used in crimes in Michigan, where the laws are ranked higher than Ohio’s with a “C” grade by the law center.
Former Columbus police officer Mark Andrew Nelson made thousands of dollars by illegally selling 500 guns at gun shows and from the trunk of his car in 2005.
One gun from his operation was linked to a triple homicide in Baltimore.
A student put another gun linked to Nelson to a student’s head at a high school in Maryland. A third was found next to a dead body in the backseat of a car in New Jersey.
Nelson was, by definition, a gun trafficker. He ran an operation that provided guns to people who otherwise wouldn’t be able to get them because they might not pass a background check.
Nelson likely will walk out of prison a free man before 2017, and many of the guns he illegally sold still will be on the streets when he does.
Could state laws have stopped Nelson and his affiliates?
“If Ohio had regulations on how many guns someone can buy in a year and kept track of firearm sales, gun traffickers who don’t have misdemeanors might get caught a bit earlier,” Ms. Cutilleta said, adding that if the state kept track of firearm sales, it might be able to step in before the federal government got around to it.
Nelson didn’t go to prison for “gun trafficking.”
He pleaded guilty to one count of lying on a government document about his intent for purchasing a firearm and was sentenced to 10 years in prison and a $2,000 fine.
The government uses that part of federal law to put away people involved in gun trafficking because there is no federal statute — or Ohio law — that makes it a crime to participate in gun-trafficking schemes.
“Right now, it’s more about the falsification of forms,” said Mr. Coulson, the ATF spokesman. “If you had knowledge that a gun was going to a felon, that charge could be tacked on, too.”
Some gun-control advocates argue that since law-enforcement officers have a working definition for gun trafficking, there should be a law making it a crime.
“A direct statute would give the federal government some powerful prosecuting tools,” said Ms. Cutilletta, attorney for the law center.
Blade staff writer Lorenzo Ligato contributed to this report.