In a Senate floor speech Tuesday, Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., said the murder of Chicago Police Officer Ella French — with a weapon bought in Indiana — adds urgency for Congress to increase the punishment of so-called straw purchasers and make it more than a “paperwork” crime.
And in a letter to Attorney General Merrick Garland on Tuesday, Durbin wrote about the need to “address firearms trafficking into the Chicagoland region, particularly from northwest Indiana. Officer French’s murder has highlighted the urgency of this task.”
Straw purchasers use their clean criminal records to buy guns and illegally put them in the hands of people who aren’t supposed to have them.
“For years, I’ve been fighting to toughen our laws against straw purchases,” Durbin said. “Right now, straw purchasing is treated, listen to this — as a federal paperwork violation for lying on a federal gun purchase form. Charges are rarely brought and when they are the sentences are often just a matter of months. That needs to change.”
Durbin, the chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee, with Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., and Sen. Susan Collins, R-Me., in April introduced The Stop Illegal Trafficking in Firearms Act of 2021, which boosts penalties if there is ‘reasonable cause’ to suspect the person the straw purchaser is handing off the weapon to will use it in a crime.
Punishment could go as high as 25 years in prison for a straw purchaser whose weapon ends up being used in a violent crime.
“We need to take this type of gun trafficking seriously. It’s time for us to stop treating straw purchases like a paperwork misdemeanor,” Durbin said. As a practical matter, it will be difficult for this bill to pass the Senate, given the objections from the gun lobby to almost all gun control proposals.
The killing of French in a routine Saturday night traffic stop in West Englewood — where her partner was critically wounded — presents a specific tragic example of exactly the situation Chicago officials have been highlighting for years.
While the city has long prohibited the sale of firearms, weapons flowing to criminals from Indiana, other states and Chicago’s suburbs make the city’s ban ineffective.
On Monday, federal prosecutors filed criminal charges against Jamel Danzy, 29, of Hammond, who allegedly acted as the so-called straw purchaser of the handgun used in the weekend shooting.
The Indiana man is being held in federal custody pending a detention hearing set for Wednesday. He is charged with conspiracy to violate federal firearm laws.
Prosecutors could face an uphill battle in seeking Danzy’s detention, despite the fatal result of his alleged crime. They will need to convince a judge that he is either a danger to the community or a risk of flight.
During a brief court hearing Monday, prosecutors signaled that part of their argument could hinge on an additional straw purchase allegedly made by Danzy. He allegedly admitted to federal agents that he had purchased a different gun for his cousin, who he also knew was a convicted felon.
Meanwhile, Danzy’s lawyer quickly pointed out Monday that Danzy has no criminal history. Normally that would count in a defendant’s favor, but the feds could also argue he used that lack of criminal history to commit his alleged crime.
DURBIN TUESDAY LETTER TO GARLAND
In his letter to Garland, Durbin wrote, “The straw purchase that led to Officer French’s death is a call to action for the Justice Department’s Strike Force.”
On July 22, Garland came to Chicago to announce the formation of strike forces to crack down on gun trafficking and straw purchases. During that visit, Garland identified Indiana as a key source of illegal guns in the Chicago area, and he said Chicago-based U.S. Attorney John Lausch had been in touch with his counterparts there and in other crucial areas as part of the new initiative.
Shortly after that, a federal judge handed down an eight-month prison sentence in what the feds called a “case study” in the problem. Federal prosecutors say Eric Blackman — a man with no criminal history — bought a 9mm Smith & Wesson pistol for someone who was underage in August 2019 from a licensed firearms dealer in Oak Forest.
Prosecutors said that gun was ultimately linked to a Dec. 22, 2019, mass shooting on the South Side injuring 13 people in the 5700 block of South May Street.