What is straw purchasing firearms? Here's what authorities, gun shop owners are seeing locally

Posted at 4:20 PM, Oct 05, 2021

NORFOLK, Va. - News 3 is taking action on gun violence in Hampton Roads, asking questions and getting results.

Since last year, News 3 has taken a deep dive on guns being used in crimes, especially those that are stolen or even bought illegally for those who can't own them.

“We don't want any crimes happening with firearms,” Steve Dowdy, owner of Bob’s Gun Shop in Norfolk said. “We don't want any illegal activity with firearms.”

For more than 75 years, Bob’s Gun Shop has helped supply Hampton Roads gun owners.

But Dowdy and his team are also constantly keeping an eye out to make sure their firearms don't fall into the wrong hands.

“Nobody wants people that aren't supposed to have guns to get them,” Dowdy said. “We're definitely here to do anything we can to keep guns out of peoples' hands that shouldn't have them.”

It's called “straw purchasing.”

“Straw purchasing is when an individual acquires a product for a third-party, that the third-party would normally not be able to legally purchase or acquire themselves,” Raj Parekh, Acting U.S. Attorney for the Eastern District of Virginia told News 3. “Disrupting the flow of illegally-trafficked firearms is critical to reducing the painful toll that gun violence inflicts on our communities, and our loved ones.”

We first heard the term in 2020 when talking with Norfolk Police Chief Larry Boone about tracking guns in Hampton Roads.

“I can tell you straw purchasing is on the rise,” Boone told News 3.

Raj Parekh said straw purchasing of firearms poses a significant threat to communities.

“It places guns in the hands of unlicensed, and potentially dangerous individuals,” Parekh said. He touched on a recent case from the Hampton Roads area involving two men: Omar Lawrence and Hasaan Radee.

“Radee had a problem, because he had a domestic assault conviction on his record, so he believed that he couldn't pass a federal background check to buy the firearms himself,” Parekh told News 3. “He enlisted the help of Omar Lawrence, who is also from the region, and I should mention he was a Sergeant in the U.S. Army Reserves. He [Lawrence] had no criminal record, and Radee enlisted Lawrence to be his straw purchaser.”

Parekh said Lawrence, over time, straw purchased 43 firearms for Radee. Radee then sold the firearms illegally to third parties.

According to Parekh, through their investigation, of those 43 firearms illegally straw purchased in Hampton Roads, six were tied to crimes.

Those six include four in Philadelphia, and one each in Baltimore and Virginia Beach.

Parekh said the Philadelphia cases involved two shootings and two other incidents resulting in gun charges. He added the gun used in one of the Philadelphia cases was a drive-by shooting that was found in a stolen car in New Jersey.

“It really illustrates the point that, although straw purchasers often do not know where the firearms they illegally purchased will end up, or how they will be used, that's what makes this crime so dangerous,” Parekh told News 3. He added that ATF agents investigated the guns recovered by Philadelphia Police, and it was collaboration between his office, the ATF, FBI and other agencies that led to Lawrence’s and Radee's prosecution.

“The serial numbers then can be traced back to the original purchaser, and that gives us intelligence on where did this gun come from? Who purchased it? Where did they purchase it,” he said. “When these firearms were recovered in these Philadelphia crimes, the serial numbers from the weapons, they were loaded into an ATF database. The ATF agents soon learned that Lawrence bought the guns at federally-licensed gun dealerships in Hampton Roads.”

Officials were able to seize 30 unlawfully acquired weapons trafficked by the two.

Earlier this year, Lawrence was sentenced to 78 months, and Radee was sentenced to 57 months, in prison.

“Because of our collaborative efforts, these defendants received significant sentences, and the straw gun networks that they contributed to were dealt a critical blow,” Parekh said.

Meanwhile, Dowdy said his shop has ways to seek out potential straw purchasers.

“It's very hard to determine a lot of times if somebody is straw purchasing,” Dowdy said.

“We'll have two people in the store at the same time, and one tries to buy it, and finds out that he can't purchase. Maybe he's not a state resident, and that's usually truly the case that we run into here,” Dowdy added. “Does it look like somebody's picking it out and another person is buying it? That's the big thing that we look for.”

He told News 3 ATF officials work with his store to educate their staff on straw purchasing.

The ATF has also partnered with the National Shooting Sports Foundation (NSSF) in creating the “Don’t Lie for the Other Guy” program with hopes of educating and helping firearm retailers to find and prevent any straw purchases.

As for Parekh, he said he has recently announced the launch of a new district-wide Project Safe Neighborhood initiative.

“That includes the appointment of federal prosecutors who are specifically assigned to coordinate efforts in each of our district's four geographic divisions, including in Hampton Roads, as part of our ongoing violent crime reduction efforts,” he said. “That, of course, includes addressing gun violence resulting from straw purchases.”

ATF officials say the Department of Justice’s (DOJ) Project Safe Neighborhoods has enhanced the “Don’t Lie for the Other Guy” program by giving funding to raise awareness about illegally purchasing firearms.

Parekh's office is also stepping up community engagement efforts, talking with local leaders and folks throughout Hampton Roads.

Overall, he emphasizes the need for folks throughout the community to speak up.

“Law enforcement, they're going to be there for them. They're going to listen to them. They're going to have a voice,” Parekh said. “While we can't promise results, what we can promise is when these types of incidents, when they're brought to the attention of law enforcement, law enforcement is going to look into it.”

Related: Norfolk Police chief launches research to address impact of gun violence in Hampton Roads

But what do local law enforcement, like Norfolk Police, see?

“You have to say, well how did they get the damn gun to start with,” NPD Chief Larry Boone told News 3.

It's a question Chief Boone has been working years to answer with Norfolk Police through years of research tracking guns, including those used in crimes.

“Eight times out of ten, those guns that are used in a crime are illegal guns,” Boone said. “What the data shows me, most of the guns purchased in Norfolk and Virginia Beach, because those are the two areas, those guns end up in surrounding cities as well. They end up in their own backyard as well. So, I think we're just missing out on an opportunity to shed some more light on this issue.”

Gun violence has been one of Boone's top issues to tackle in his time as NPD Chief, especially after the shootings throughout this past Summer around Hampton Roads.

Straw purchasing is one trend his department has been keeping tabs on. “I embrace the second amendment. What I don't embrace is illegal gun trafficking, and irresponsible gun ownership,” Boone said. “These illegal guns are destroying our communities.”

Previously, Boone told News 3 straw purchasing of firearms has been on the rise for the past two to three years. So, News 3 asked why and what would motivate someone to take part in this activity? “In some cases, it's a girlfriend purchasing it for a boyfriend who is a felon,” he said. “We've seen an increase in that.”

“Another motivation has been money,” Boone added. “You've got gang members that will pay an individual in fine standing to purchase a weapon for them.”

Boone said social media has been a resource for cracking down on illegal guns. “In some cases, we have individuals showcasing through social media that they are in the gun store purchasing a weapon for someone else. Documentary evidence,” Boone said. “They've gotten really comfortable with it.”

“In one particular case, there's an individual, the buyee, and the helper. You see the helper give the money to the buyee to purchase the gun. But you see, hours later, that individual's on social media saying, 'Look at my new Glock,” he added. “You see them hand the money over to the other guy. The guy gives it to the clerk. There's a transaction, of course. Because, the guy who couldn't possess it, hours later is on social media holding the gun. He was arrested hours later.”

Boone told News 3 his department, recently, has had success with people admitting to straw purchasing, and charging individuals.

“The more that we start highlighting that type of behavior, and they've been charged and held accountable for it, we can start making some inroads.”

Overall, he believes more needs to be done in raising awareness of straw purchasing.

“I don't think we've done a well enough job of selling that,” he said. “What do we do when we want folks to slow down, stop speeding? We talk about it. Everybody talks about speeding, but we don't talk about this subject because it's politics involved.”

“We can march. We can talk about this issue forever,” Boone added. If you really want to impact the illegal flow of guns, we have to start focusing on those individuals that are selling the guns to folks that shouldn't have them to start with. That's the most immediate way to deal with this.”

For Dowdy, he believes stiffer penalties for straw purchasing will help send a message.

“My gut feeling is we're not prosecuting people to the extent that we probably should,” Dowdy said. “You want to talk about getting the word out. When people start understanding how severe the penalties are, I think that's really a big part in curbing this.”

“I think they may kind of consider it as helping somebody out or helping a friend out,” Dowdy added. “If we can make them understand, yes. It is a felony. And yes, anything that happens with that gun beyond here could potentially come back on you, I think people are going to start to understand it's a little more than helping a friend out.”

“I think it will change the narrative if that gun shop owner, or whoever is selling the gun, look that individual square in the eyes, and say are you purchasing this gun for you? Or are you purchasing it for someone else that cannot legally possess the weapon,” Boone said.

As for Chief Boone, he and other law enforcement and community leaders won't back down from their message of responsible gun ownership. He said the focus needs to be, not just on the end user, but also on those supplying firearms.

“We just really collectively haven't rolled up our sleeves and done as much as we can do,” Boone said. “If we can bring the same vigor that we had in the Summer of 2020, to this issue, oh my God. Just think about it. We'll change some behavior.”

News 3 reached out to police departments throughout the Seven Cities. Neither of them were able to provide specific numbers related to straw purchasing in their cities.

Related: News 3 investigates an increase in gun violence after shootings on the Peninsula