Officials crack down on straw purchasers of illegal firearms

February 8, 2013
U.S. Attorney David Hickton motions toward a table of replica firearms that represent those involved in 17 federal and state cases recently brought against so-called straw purchasers who purchase guns for felons. Shown with Hickton, from left, are Washington County District Attorney Gene Vittone, federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives Acting Assistant Special Agent in Charge Marcus Watson and Allegheny County Sheriff Bill Mullen. - Andy McNeil / Observer-Reporter Order a Print

PITTSBURGH – Federal prosecutors announced Friday that 17 criminal cases had recently been brought in an effort to crack down on straw purchasers who illegally buy firearms for felons.

“This combined prosecution effort is a good illustration of the work that we do everyday together that reflects our unity in ridding the community of this problem,” U.S. Attorney David Hickton said during a news conference.

He explained that the federal Department of Justice has been working with the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives as well as state and local law enforcement to take illegal firearms out of communities by expanding the net of defendants to include both those who use such weapons and those who facilitate their possession.

“If you straw purchase firearms or if you illegally possess a firearm, ATF will identify you, investigate you and incarcerate you,” said Marcus Watson, the bureau’s acting assistant special agent in charge.

According to Hickton, the typical straw purchaser is a person who is either engaged in illegal drug use or is a family member or significant other of a felon who cannot possess firearms legally. He said firearms that are traded for drugs are often either illegally purchased or stolen from legal gun owners.

“We can stop this process at the threshold if legal gun owners can do a better job securing their guns and engaging in more responsible gun ownership,” Hickton said.

“If you have a legal gun with a concealed carry permit, you don’t go to the Steelers game and leave it on your seat,” he added, as an example.

Allegheny County Sheriff Bill Mullen said his office saw such permit applications increase from about 12,000 in 2011 to 15,700 last year.

“We haven’t seen that dramatic of an increase since President Obama’s first term when people thought he was going to confiscate all these weapons,” Mullen said.

In Washington County, local guns shops had reported an uptick in firearms sales following the horrific Sandy Hook school shooting, but permit figures were not immediately available.

In addition to going after those who lie on applications, Mullen noted that his office has taken back hundreds of permits over the past several years from legal gun owners involved in irresponsible acts, such as drunkenly displaying firearms.

“It’s not a right to carry a firearm concealed, but it is a privilege,” Mullen said.

Out of the 17 cases, seven people are facing federal charges, including five with ties to Washington County.

Felix Cruz, 49, formerly of Houston, was indicted for possessing firearms in November 2011 after being convicted for a crime punishable by more than one year in prison. He faces a maximum sentence of up to 10 years in prison.

Linda Daugherty, 32, of Eighty Four; Jeffrey Cochenour, 41, of Charleroi; and Ronald DeGrange, 46, of Monongahela, were all indicted for providing false information while buying guns on behalf of other people in December 2011. DeGrange also failed to indicate that he was the user of a controlled substance. All three face a maximum sentence of up to five years in prison.

Michael Howard, 28, of Venetia, was indicted for providing false information two separate occasions in 2010 as well as possessing a firearm while using a controlled substance. He faces a maximum sentence of up to 20 years in prison.

Washington County District Attorney Gene Vittone commended Hickton, ATF and other officials for their efforts on the cases.

“We have a good working relationship working at the state federal and local level and these (cases) are the tangible fruits of that relationship,” he said.

Those with information to share regarding the illegal purchase or possession of firearms are encouraged to call 1-800-ATF-GUNS.

Andy McNeil has been with the Observer-Reporter since 2011 as a general assignment reporter. He covers courts and education, and also serves as a photographer and videographer. He graduated from Pennsylvania State University, The Behrend College, with a degree in English; Duquense University with a post-baccalaureate paralegal certificate, and Point Park University with a graduate degree in journalism and mass communication.

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