Straw purchase Catch-22

Some months back, I was asked by a friend to comment on a situation that had developed in a small town East of Kansas City. Colby Sue Weathers had been trying to obtain a firearm. She had demonstrated metal illness but was not a “prohibited person” under Federal law due to having never been “put through the system”. Colby’s parents, Janet and Tex Delana, had confiscated another firearm she’d previously purchased.

On the tragic day in question, Janet had been calling Odessa Gun & Pawn in Odessa, Missouri, begging them to not sell Colby a firearm. They ignored Janet’s pleas and sold Colby the firearm. She had previously displayed suicidal tendencies, and Janet was under the presumption she aimed to buy the gun to kill herself. Colby instead used it to kill her father.

Now the friend asked my opinion on this “since Trump is making it easier for people to get guns that have mental disease”, a notion I tackled at the end of the comment I left. There were actually two parts to the comment, which I’ve reproduced below.

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The gun store was under no obligation to adhere to the mother’s request. The gun store didn’t really have any way of knowing if the mother was telling the truth. She could’ve made up the line about the daughter being suicidal as a means of interfering with her ability to buy a gun. It’d be like calling a car dealer and telling them to not sell her a car because she has a history of driving drunk (with or without any DUI convictions) when she just doesn’t want the daughter buying a car for whatever reason. Controlling mothers do exist, and there are plenty of mothers who try to be controlling over their sons and daughters long after they’ve moved out. As the owner said, they can’t just go on a phone call.

Think about it a sec. Someone calls you sounding hysterical, begging you to not sell a gun to someone. Are you going to think the person visiting your store is crazy, or the person calling you is crazy?

That said, there were options the parents could’ve exercised.

The story actually highlights a very well-known concern with the NICS system, and one that even gun rights advocates (such as yours truly) want addressed. The trouble is how to do it while still upholding a foundational principle of our republic: due process. How do you stop someone who is potentially suicidal from buying a gun without throwing due process out the window? There are numerous avenues that do and do not involve the government.

For one, if you believe a person is suicidal, you actually CAN call the police and intervene. I’ve actually had to make one such phone call. A friend of mine in Florida gave me every indication over IM that she planned to kill herself. I had sent her something in the mail a few months prior, so I called her local police department, gave them her name and home address along with mine (they requested it specifically to know it’s not a crank call). Thankfully nothing actually happened, but it’s an option.

The problem, however, is that she was calling to stop her daughter from buying a gun, not stop her from committing suicide. Yes they are separate and distinct. Typically a gun store won’t sell a gun to someone obviously in distress. The problem is that someone who has resigned themselves to suicide doesn’t always give any outward indicators. They can seem perfectly calm in demeanor when buying the weapon they intend to use to off themselves. Whether it’s walking into Home Depot to buy a length of rope, a bottle of sleeping pills from the pharmacy, or even a gun.

Once when working at K-Mart, there was a person who walked up to a register with a bottle of sleeping pills and a bottle of vodka. And nothing else. I was called over (I was shift supervisor at the time, but the cashier was not underage so didn’t technically need me) and I carded the person. The law in Iowa then was that carding a customer who appeared under 40 was at the discretion of the cashier, but that once carded, the ID had to be produced or the sale could not go through. The person didn’t have their ID. I told them I couldn’t ring up the alcohol. And they left.

There wasn’t anything untoward about the person. They seemed calm and collected. But anyone else who would’ve seen that combination brought to the checkout would’ve thought the same thing I did. What can I do within my power to stop this?

Given the daughter’s history, there are legal processes the mother could have used to prevent her daughter from buying a firearm. Personally I’m surprised given her history with mental hospitals that she had never been involuntarily committed. Any attempt to have a suicidal person declared a danger to themselves often comes down to a war of words unless there is a documented suicide attempt, with it being nearly automatic if there are multiple interrupted suicide attempts on record.

But since the daughter lived with them and was on disability, I also wonder why the parents never petitioned the Court to have the daughter declared unfit to handle her personal affairs. That would’ve made her ineligible to purchase a pistol, and such would’ve been reported through the county sheriff to the FBI to have her listed in NICS as a prohibited person. There were options.

The repeal that Trump signed, however, stopped it from becoming AUTOMATIC with regard to the SSA. Instead due process must still be upheld, meaning the person must be declared by a Court to be a prohibited person rather than a government agency deciding that for themselves.

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The pawn shop settled out of Court for $2.2 million. The Missouri Supreme Court merely said the lawsuit wasn’t barred under the law.

The ultimate question comes down to the circumstance: how do you tell whether the person coming in to buy a gun is a “dangerous person”? As the gun shop owner said in deposition, you can’t just go on a phone call. Since, as I said above, you can’t know whether the person on the other end of the call is being truthful.

It’s similar to the failed lawsuit against Lucky Gunner, the store that sold James Holmes ammunition. The Odessa pawn shop settled likely to just cut their losses. I know a couple people from Odessa, and it’s a small town, meaning even the $2.2 million was likely devastating financially.

There largely isn’t a win in this scenario. If they didn’t do the sale, she likely would’ve just gone elsewhere. Kansas City is only 45 minutes away from Odessa, and she was not barred under Federal or Missouri law from obtaining a firearm. Or they do the sale and pray the phone call was wrong.

Beyond that, there really isn’t much the gun shop can do without being accused of “getting in someone’s business”.

Which is rather ironic in many ways. For the most part we want other people to stay out of our lives. And then get surprised, or sue, when they do and the result of not intervening is a tragedy such as this.

It’s an irony pointed out by the challenge I’ve seen of “what two (or three) things do you bring to the cashier to freak them out?” And it shows as well the powerlessness with most cashiers. Not many people are willing to risk their livelihoods on a hunch.

Which this case shows quite clearly that circumstances like this are no-win. They’re damned if they make the sale — given the tragic results and subsequent $2.2 million settlement — and damned if they don’t since that would’ve just been a delay more than anything.

If you were in my shoes above, with the woman buying vodka and sleeping pills, what would you have done if the person produced their identification showing to be of legal age? Anything beyond what I did likely would’ve resulted in a customer complaint, which would’ve led to termination or suspension.

And while one could say “well at least I stopped [x]”, there’s not much room for self-righteousness when it comes to your income, and all you have is a hunch.

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What is prompting me to reproduce these comments here?

I encountered an article on The Washington Post regarding the Lock N Load gun shop in Oldsmar, Florida. Its previous owner agreed to sell the business and never again sell firearms (Type 1 FFL) after a straw purchase at his store ended in tragedy. The same group that sued the Lock N Load also sued Odessa Gun & Pawn: the Brady Center.

Unlike Colby Weathers, Benjamin Bishop was a prohibited person under Federal law, having been previously involuntarily committed to a mental institution due to schizophrenia. After failing a background check, Bishop returned to the shop with an acquaintance, who purchased a 12-gauge shotgun and gave it to Bishop outside the store. The textbook definition of a straw purchase.

Bishop used the shotgun to kill his mother and her boyfriend. He is now serving two life terms consecutively in a Florida prison.

The store was also sued due to the straw purchase. And here’s where things get complicated: the allegation the store didn’t do “enough” to stop the straw purchase. The thing is there’s not much that can happen beyond notice to potential purchasers that straw purchases are illegal, under Federal law and the laws of every State.

It’s as if gun control individuals expect hindsight in the moment. To somehow know that a purchase is a straw purchase even if there aren’t clear indicators. Unless there are absolute, unquestionable indicators that it is a straw purchase, there’s largely nothing a gun shop can do. About the most they can do is post a sign regarding straw purchases.

And what do I mean by “absolute, unquestionable indicators”? I’ll use this example from a Reddit user who worked the gun section at a WalMart:

Had a woman walk up with a presumed grandson. Normal start. Instead of looking he goes directly to a shotgun, and points to it and says , we want this one. Ask who the legal guardian is, inform them of the sale and legality, blah blah blah. No big deal. Had an odd feeling, but i brushed it off.

This is where it gets interesting. As she starts to fill out the form, the kid gets on his phone and makes a call , and starts gesticulating towards the shotgun and starts mumbling. I walk closer and heard , ” (Brand) is the one right?” , ” Are you sure”INSTANT red flag. I start paying real close attention and it starts to look like a straw purchase.

I start asking all the usual questions. ” Intended use?” “Whose it for”, “Hunting or self defense” etc. Answer are short and rehearsed. Another red flag pops up.

The final nail in the coffin was a guy comes up, walks to the grandparent, asks how it is going, then the kid points to the gun and asks , ” Is this the one you wanted?“.

DING DING DING, we have a winner straw purchase.

Absent the obvious indicators, there’s not much a gun seller can do. If they have reasonable suspicion it’s a straw purchase, they can stop the sale. But absent that, and absent any clear and obvious indicators, there is, again, not much a gun seller can do.

Just as there also isn’t much they can do when someone is phoning in frantic. They really have to go on what’s in front of them. And as I said above, there’s little room for self-righteousness when all you have is a hunch.