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Prosecutor takes aim at illegal gun trade

Thomas Weldon has felt the adrenaline rush that comes from being the first one to burst through the door of a drug house, unsure who's going to be on the other side - or whether there will be a gun pointed at his head.

As an FBI agent who worked on a gang task force in Chicago, he often came across illegal guns. Now, as a federal prosecutor, he's going to try to get them off the streets.

“I've worked firsthand with gang violence and street violence,” said Mr. Weldon, a northwest Ohio native. “I've seen the impact, and I think it's devastating. I'm happy to have the opportunity here to make a difference on this end.”

Mr. Weldon, 34, a former Franklin County prosecutor and an FBI agent in Chicago from 1997 until this year, joined the Toledo U.S. attorney's office in February as part of a federal program called Project Safe Neighborhoods.

The Bush administration program is receiving $559 million over two years to hire prosecutors, conduct training, and improve technology to enforce gun laws across the country.

David Bauer, head of the Toledo office since 1991, said hiring a new prosecutor will allow more firearm cases to be prosecuted.

The office, which has seven criminal prosecutors, turns away more than 50 percent of the cases it gets because it doesn't have the attorneys to handle them.

Mr. Bauer said it still won't be possible to take all the cases to court, but more of them will be able to get into the system.

“We had to be very selective with the ones we prosecuted because of the resource situation,” Mr. Bauer said. “With [Mr. Weldon] here now, we expect there will be many more prosecutions and we'll be much more proactive in targeting organizations and individuals engaged in trafficking firearms.”

Prosecuting people who buy guns legally in Ohio and illegally sell them out of state will be a priority for the local offices of the U.S. attorney and federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms. Both offices cover 21 northwest Ohio counties.

He said guns often are purchased at gun stores, gun shows, or pawn shops and then sold to drug dealers or felons who can't buy them legally in cities like Detroit and Chicago. That's a fairly common form of firearms trafficking,” Mr. Bauer said.

He cited a case he recently handled in which two men were prosecuted for buying guns, such as 9mm pistols, in Toledo with false identification to sell in Detroit.

One of the men was sentenced to 28 months in prison and the other to 18 months.

Another emphasis by the ATF and U.S. attorneys will be cracking down on people who are “lying and buying,” the phrase used to describe people who buy guns by lying on forms that must be filled out to buy firearms.

Mr. Bauer said people most often lie about whether they have a felony conviction but other restrictions, such as being under a restraining order for stalking or being an illegal alien, also bar gun purchases. He said people are caught when mandatory background checks reveal their decep- tion.

Steve Zellers, head of the local ATF office, said serious gun cases are being prosecuted, but a new prosecutor will allow his agents to present more cases to the office. “Having Tom, we have someone who can be more attuned to federal firearm violations. It's just someone directly to go to,” Mr. Zellers said.

The number of crimes committed with guns gives an indication why police and prosecutors want to keep them out of the hands of people who aren't supposed to have them.

In 2000, roughly 66 percent of murders, 41 percent of robberies, and 18 percent of aggravated assaults were committed with a firearm, according the U.S. Department of Justice's Bureau of Justice Statistics.

After hitting a high of about 582,000 violent firearm crimes in 1993, that number fell to about 342,000 in 2000.

With so many crimes involving guns, there's no shortage of cases to go around between federal and state courts. Mr. Bauer said his office will work with county prosecutors to talk about whether the crimes should be prosecuted in state or federal court with an eye toward getting the stiffest sentence possible.

Lucas County Prosecutor Julia Bates said she's willing to work with federal prosecutors. “I think we need to decide where we get the most bang for the buck,” she said.

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