Authorities have arrested New York resident Dawn Nguyen, 24, for illegally purchasing a Bushmaster AR-15 rifle which was then used in a Christmas Eve rampage that killed two firefighters and the shooter’s sister, authorities said Friday.
On December 24, William Spengler set fire to seven houses in Webster, New York, and then opened fire on four firefighters and an off-duty police officer, killing two and injuring two before committing suicide with a pistol. Human remains thought to belong to Cheryl Spengler, the shooter’s 67-year-old sister, were found in the property on the night of the 26.
Nguyen is apparently accused of acting as a “straw purchaser” for William Spengler, 62, purchasing the weapon for Spengler because as a convicted felon, he was unable to purchase the rifle himself. Spengler had apparently spent 17 years in prison for beating his 92-year-old grandmother to death with a hammer.
Prosecutors allege that Ms. Nguyen lied on her firearms application, providing false information in order to purchase the Bushmaster for Spengler. “Dawn Nguyen told the seller of these weapons that she was to be true owner and buyer of these guns … it is absolutely against federal law to provide any materially false information,” U.S. Attorney William J. Hochul told ABC News on Friday.
Before his ambush, Spengler wrote a haunting note explaining his actions, committing to see just “how much of the neighborhood I can burn down,” also mentioning he wanted “to do what I like doing best, killing people.” He apparently alleged that he had obtained the firearms used in the shooting from “his neighbor’s daughter.”
Spengler’s case raises serious questions about just how easy it is to obtain a dangerous weapon with the assistance of a straw purchaser. In 2001, Jack Killorin, then-Director of the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms, told the Chicago Tribune that straw purchases are “the most significant factor in gun trafficking, no question.” The ATF said that between July 1996 and December 1998, 46% of all trafficking investigations into firearms use resulted in the conclusion that a straw purchaser was the link between the legal and illegal firearms markets. Straw purchasing of firearms remains a significant problem. In 2009, the City of New York conducted an investigation concluding that 67% of firearms dealers were willing to sell guns to someone who admitted they could probably not pass a background check. 16 of 17 – or 94% – of gun dealers were apparently willing to sell a firearm to someone who appeared to be acting as a straw purchaser.
Enforcing current laws regarding firearms registration more stringently may be one solution to that problem. The NYC investigators proposed two solutions: increasing the funding of the ATF to conduct integrity tests of licensed and private dealers, including investigating dealers who sell guns without a license. Additionally, they recommend closing the “Gun Show Loophole” which allows the purchase of firearms at gun shows without a mandatory background check, if those purchases are made from a “private,” unlicensed seller. Two out of every five guns sold in the United States changes hands without a background check.
While closing the gun show loophole may not have prevented the shooting directly – New York already requires a background check on all purchases – increased enforcement and regulation of gun laws on the books might have prevented Spengler from easily obtaining a firearm by discouraging sellers from making illegal sales. Currently, there appears to be a culture of impunity within gun shows. Most firearms dealers operate within legal guidelines, but loosely regulated gun shows allow for sellers with less rigorous standards to sell guns to virtually anyone. 33 states allow the gun loophole to continue, resulting in situations like the following uncovered by the NYC investigators:
For Dawn’s part, the Nguyens deny that they bought firearms for Spengler, claiming that the weapons were stolen from them.
Congress begins looking at a comprehensive reform of gun laws beginning on January 3rd following the recent wave of shootings which has plagued the country. At an absolute minimum, legislators should be willing to look at options to increase the ability of the ATF to enforce existing gun laws, as well as closing the gun show loophole.