BY EVAN S. BENN
Assault weapons are leaving a bloody
trail of violence in South Florida -- and one of the most telling statistics
about the trend is this number: one.
Of the 69 police officers killed with firearms in the
United States last year, only one was shot with an assault weapon, according to
the National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial Fund. So far this year, the
nation has seen only one assault-weapon police fatality.
Both were in South Florida.
The police slayings -- Miami-Dade Officer Jose Somohano,
killed in September, and Miami Detective James Walker, gunned down last week --
reflect a larger trend that has taken shape over the past four years, said Miami
Police Chief John Timoney.
In Miami, assault weapons were used in about 4 percent of
all homicides in 2004; last year, the figure was 21 percent, Timoney said. The
chief, who called the powerful guns "the weapon of choice among gangs here,"
said the surge seems confined to certain sections of the country: South Florida,
Atlanta and areas along the Texas-Mexico border.
"It's an embarrassment, frankly," Timoney said. "The guns
keep coming in, their prices are dropping, and they've become ubiquitous."
The man who killed Somohano, Shawn LaBeet, used an MAK-90
rifle -- a modified AK-47 built in China. LaBeet, who injured three other
officers and was shot dead by police after a daylong manhunt, bought six assault
weapons and three handguns last year with a Jacksonville man's stolen ID.
Timoney wouldn't discuss specifics about the gun that
probably killed Walker -- a Romanian-made AK-47 found at the scene of the
shooting in North Miami Beach. "We're tying up some loose ends on that," he
said. "It will come out, just not yet."
Generally, though, authorities believe the gun had been
sold on the street, diverted into the black market after somebody bought it from
a licensed gun dealer.
Police, gun-control advocates and federal reports say a
major way that assault weapons get into the wrong hands is through straw
purchases, in which someone buys a gun legally and sells it to someone who
shouldn't have it, like ex-convicts or minors. In Florida, felony convictions,
some domestic violence convictions and mental-health conditions prohibit gun
"Someone will go in and buy a number of these weapons,
legally, and then they'll turn around and sell them out of the trunk of their
car, illegally," said Paul Helmke, president of the Brady Campaign to Prevent
Gun Violence. "It's a fast and easy way to make a few bucks."
Gun-store owners like Walter Philbrick say they try to be
vigilant in preventing straw purchases.
"We've had numerous people come in and try to fool us,"
said Philbrick, a retired Hialeah police sergeant who runs the IPS 911 Store in
"The most common is like two guys come in, and one guy
holds all the guns, asks all the questions, then he tells his friend" --
Philbrick whispers -- " 'I want that gun.'
"We say, 'Sorry, can't do it. This is a straw purchase.
Please leave my gun shop.'"
But, Philbrick said, there can be loopholes:
"If a mother walks in and wants to buy her son a firearm
for his birthday, that's probably acceptable."
Four men who made repeated shopping trips to eight gun
shops and one gun show in Broward County last year weren't looking for birthday
The four, all of whom had concealed-weapons permits and
clean backgrounds, drove from their homes in Opa-locka and Miami Gardens to buy
assault weapons and handguns in Broward over several months in 2006 and 2007.
They brought the weapons and accessories -- including a 90-round magazine --
down to the streets of Miami and sold them for double the cost, according to
federal court documents.
In all, their gun operation trafficked more than 150
assault weapons and handguns before agents of the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol,
Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives arrested them last year.
A Weston gun-shop owner tipped off the ATF, as required by
law, when the men bought multiple handguns in one day. From that day on,
investigators said, the men started to buy AK-47s and other assault weapons,
which do not have a multiple-sale reporting requirement as handguns do.
At least one of the guns was later recovered from an
unspecified Miami-Dade crime, according to investigators.
The group's downfall was the volume of weapons bought.
"Furthermore, 150 firearms, both handguns and rifles, are
not indicative of personal use," ATF Agent James Turner wrote in his criminal
The men pleaded guilty to conspiracy to deal in firearms
without a license and were sentenced last summer to about two years in prison.
One of the gun shops they visited twice was Victor
Needelman's American Range and Gun Shop in Pembroke Park. Federal agents
contacted Needelman during the investigation. He said he helped by reviewing his
records with agents, but he didn't realize until the ATF came for a visit that
he may have sold guns to traffickers.
"The last thing we want is to put guns in the hands of
criminals," Needelman said...