Plymouth Twp. officer's killing renews pressure on straw-buyer gun bill

Plymouth Twp. Officer Bradley Fox was killed on Sept. 13. His killer obtained multiple guns from a straw-buyer.
Plymouth Twp. Officer Bradley Fox was killed on Sept. 13. His killer obtained multiple guns from a straw-buyer.
Posted: October 16, 2012

Pennsylvania prosecutors hope a recent arrest in the case of slain Plymouth Township Officer Bradley Fox can breathe new life into a long-stalled bill to beef up penalties for illegal gun sales.

For years, they have fought for legislation that would increase penalties for those convicted of buying guns legally and illegally selling them to felons, who are prohibited from buying firearms.

Representatives from the Pennsylvania District Attorneys Association will testify Monday at a hearing in Harrisburg.

Though a measure that would impose a five-year mandatory minimum sentence on such so-called straw buyers overwhelmingly passed the state House last year, it has idled in the state Senate since.

But the announcement last week that the gun used to kill Fox came from such a transaction has drawn new attention to the moribund bill. Within days, the Senate Judiciary Committee scheduled Monday's hearing..

"Whenever an officer gets shot, it will bring a lot of attention to the surrounding issues," said State Rep. Marcy Toepel (R. Montgomery), the bill's sponsor in the House. "I think that's why suddenly there's some attention on this bill."

Fox, an Iraq war veteran just one day away from 35, was shot and killed Sept. 13 while pursuing a hit-and-run driver near the intersection of Conshohocken and Ernest Station Roads in Plymouth Township. His assailant, 44-year-old Andrew C. Thomas, killed himself just steps away, police said.

Thomas had been convicted of felony forgery and could not have legally bought the 9mm Beretta used in the attack. Montgomery County prosecutors traced the purchase of that weapon to a Philadelphia man who allegedly told detectives he bought the firearm for Thomas.

According to court filings, Michael J. Henry, 30, said he bought the gun from a Jeffersonville gun store, one of nine he bought for Thomas between April and July. Thomas paid him $500 for each weapon, Henry purportedly said.

In announcing Henry's arrest Monday, Montgomery County District Attorney Risa Vetri Ferman urged state lawmakers to pass stiffer laws against straw buying.

"Straw purchasers contribute to so much of the gun violence we see across Pennsylvania. The death of Officer Bradley Fox is just one example," said Ferman, who has emerged as one of the state's top advocates for Toepel's bill. "If we don't have effective tools for proper punishment for these types of crimes, there is no disincentive."

Perhaps the most puzzling aspect in the delay of Toepel's bill is that four years ago, it was already a part of Pennsylvania law.

In 2008, an unrelated court decision inadvertently stripped the straw-buyer law of its harshest penalties.

In deciding the case of a convicted child pornographer who contested his classification as a repeat offender, Commonwealth Court ruled the man could not be punished as one because he had never been found guilty of a similar crime before.

Prosecutors argued that because they could trace his history with pornography back years, he had committed multiple offenses and should be punished accordingly.

Because the language regarding penalties for straw buyers was the same as in the child pornography law, the court's decision in the 2008 case affected it, too, said Max Nacheman of the gun violence prevention group CeaseFirePA. To receive the five-year mandatory minimum sentence, a straw buyer now had to have been convicted of previous straw purchases.

"The problem is, if you have a record, you can't be a straw purchaser," Nacheman said. "It's impossible to have multiple convictions. Once you have your first offense, you're a felon and can no longer legally buy a gun."

As the law stands now, those convicted of straw buying can be sentenced to anywhere from seven years in prison to none at all, no matter the number of firearms involved. And because felons are barred from buying guns, straw buyers by definition have clean records - a quality judges look for when granting lenient sentences.

Toepel's bill would turn a straw buyer convicted of selling multiple weapons into a repeat offender and mandate a sentence of at least five years.

"That tough sentence is important because straw purchasing is a really difficult issue to fight preemptively," Nacheman said. "You can only really focus on deterrence."

But Toepel is at a loss to explain the bill's lack of progress. Unlike most firearms legislation, her measure has not attracted opposition from the gun lobby. It passed the House, 186-10, with a wide measure of bipartisan support.

Nacheman suggested the delay may stem from the past tendency of the Senate Judiciary Committee and its chairman, State Sen. Stewart Greenleaf (R., Montgomery), to resist proposals that would impose mandatory minimum sentences, which have been blamed for contributing to prison overcrowding.

Greenleaf did not return repeated calls seeking comment last week.

Even with Monday's hearing, backers worry roadblocks may impede passage.

In the past, gun-related bills that initially enjoyed broad support have met swift deaths after being saddled with amendments containing more controversial proposals.

Ferman said Friday she hoped the consequences that Fox's case laid bare would help prevent Toepel's proposal from meeting a similar fate.

"I hope that no one tries to politicize it and add other issues," she said. "This bill standing alone is extremely important to law enforcement, extremely important to victims, and extremely important to the community."

Toepel puts it more simply.

"It's not really a complicated issue," she said. "It's pretty straightforward. It closes a loophole that needs closing."


Contact Jeremy Roebuck at 267-564-5218, jroebuck@phillynews.com, or follow @jeremyrroebuck on Twitter.

Inquirer staff writer Mari A. Schaefer contributed to this article.

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