COLUMBUS (WCMH) — NBC4 Investigates went behind the scenes at firearm stores to learn how the private sector works with law enforcement to keep guns out of dangerous hands.
While a large portion of guns used in crimes are stolen, according to agents with the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives (ATF), some crime guns can be traced to straw purchases. A straw purchase is when a person who can legally buy a firearm makes the purchase for someone who is not legally permitted.
Behind the sales floor at L.E.P.D. Firearms Range and Training in Columbus is what owner Eric Delbert calls his “wall of shame.” It features people who’ve come into his store to buy a gun, but instead, got indicted.
“We have close ties to law enforcement, to the ATF,” Delbert said. “In situations like that, it’s easy to pick up the phone and say, ‘Hey, look. Just to let you know, something just didn’t seem right on this.’”
That’s exactly what Delbert said happened in 2018 when two customers came into the store.
“It was a little bit of a strange conversation, in that they immediately went to firearms in the case and pointed out a couple of different firearms and merely wanted multiples of that firearm,” Delbert recalled. “Which is something we don’t see all the time.”
Picking out guns as though they’re cookies at a bakery is just one of the red flags Delbert said can help him spot a straw purchaser. Another, he said, can happen during the course of routine conversation.
“We’re a small business here,” Delbert said. “And so, a lot of times we talk to the customers.”
Delbert described the tone of the suspicious customers in 2018 as “short” and “aloof.”
“It really threw some red flags up there that made us think twice about selling them firearms,” Delbert said.
While the customers filled out the paperwork required to buy the guns, Delbert’s staff had a decision to make.
“Through a couple of us talking, (we) decided, ‘You know what? We’re not going to allow these firearms to go out the door,’” he said.
Delbert sent the customers on their way empty-handed and called the ATF. His tip turned into an investigation.
Licensed firearm dealers are legally required to report sales of two or more handguns to the same person within a five-day period by submitting a form to the ATF. An ATF agent told NBC4 Investigates the agency was able to use the forms to link a pattern of gun purchases across central Ohio to the people who were in Delbert’s store, plus two others.
The four were convicted for their roles in an international firearm trafficking ring after firearm traces revealed the guns they’d purchased were being used to commit crimes in Canada.
A 2018 press release from the U.S. Department of Justice applauded L.E.P.D. for helping with the case.
“I was very proud of our employees for identifying them,” Delbert said. “They did a good job saying, ‘You know what? This just didn’t feel right.’ And ultimately it ended up one for the good guys.”
L.E.P.D. has been in business since 2013. According to Delbert, suspicious situations like this are very rare. He said people coming into his store to legally purchase a weapon will not automatically become suspects.
“Ninety-nine percent of the time someone comes in and purchases a gun here or at other stores, it is a normal course of business,” Delbert said. “Nothing beyond that.”