Federal authorities yesterday charged a 64-year-old unlicensed gun dealer in central Illinois with selling white supremacist Benjamin Nathaniel Smith the guns he is believed to have used in his deadly shooting spree and said they had raided the dealer's home the day before the shootings began last week.
Donald R. Fiessinger of Pekin, Ill., was charged in U.S. District Court in Peoria, Ill., with illegally selling dozens of guns in the underground market, including two bought by Smith the day after he learned he had failed a background check initiated by a licensed dealer in nearby Peoria Heights.
Police believe Smith used the .22-caliber and .380-caliber semiautomatic handguns in a three-day holiday weekend shooting rampage in Illinois and Indiana. The 21-year-old former college sophomore is believed to have killed two men and wounded nine others before taking his own life with one of his guns as police tried to arrest him in Salem, Ill., Sunday night. All of the victims were black, Jewish or of Asian descent.
Smith's easy access to guns in the secondary market so soon after failing a background check has become a flash point for advocates on both sides of the gun control debate. Supporters of gun control say the case demonstrates the inadequacy of the nation's gun laws, while gun lobbyists maintain the problem is lax enforcement.
Jerry Singer, a special agent for the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms in Chicago, said that Fiessinger had been under investigation as a "high-volume street source" of guns before the shooting spree began Friday night.
According to an affidavit filed in court by the ATF, Fiessinger had advertised weapons in a local newspaper and, based on the ads, two undercover ATF agents arranged to buy guns last Thursday -- less than 24 hours before the shooting rampage began with the wounding of six Orthodox Jews in Chicago's Rogers Park neighborhood.
Later that Thursday night, federal agents searched Fiessinger's home and seized 27 firearms and numerous records of firearms sales.
ATF agent Daniel Volk said in the affidavit that Fiessinger called him on Tuesday and said he remembered selling Smith the two guns that police said were found with his body in Salem. Volk said Fiessinger told him he had been unaware of Smith's white supremacist views when he sold him the guns, and that Smith had said he was going to use them for hunting. According to the affidavit, the bureau began investigating Fiessinger after a handgun he had purchased was seized from another person during a routine traffic stop. Volk said records showed that Fiessinger had purchased 65 handguns from one Pekin store, apparently for resale.
Noting the 65-gun purchase, Sen. Richard J. Durbin (D-Ill.) yesterday called on the National Rifle Association to support a "reasonable limit" on the number of handguns a person may buy each month or each year. He said a limit would have made it more difficult for Fiessinger to have accumulated an arsenal for sale.
"It is clear that no one person needs to purchase 65 handguns in a two-year period for safety or recreation," Durbin wrote in a letter to NRA Executive Vice President Wayne LaPierre.
Passage of a limit, however, could be problematic in the wake of the NRA's defeat last month of gun control legislation that would have required unlicensed dealers at gun shows to initiate background checks on firearms sales.
Whether Smith's easy access to guns is the fault of the nation's gun laws or of lax enforcement is subject to debate.
"This speaks loud and clear for a system where we register every firearm and license each user so that each transaction has to go through a background check," said Joshua Horwitz, executive director of the Educational Fund to End Handgun Violence. "If you register as owner of a certain gun and you dispose of it without a background check, you should be held responsible."
Bill Powers, spokesman for the National Rifle Association, said the case demonstrates a breakdown of enforcement of gun laws because Smith should have been arrested when he tried to purchase guns from the licensed gun shop in Peoria Heights late last month. A background check had revealed that a former girlfriend of Smith had obtained a court protection order, alleging that he had beaten her. Federal law prohibits anyone under such a protective court order from purchasing a firearm, and Smith could have been charged with lying on his application form, Powers noted.
"The system worked, but the enforcement wasn't there," Powers said. "They had him in the store, they knew who he was and they knew he had committed a felony [in lying about the court order]. But they just let him go out and get the guns somewhere else."
ATF officials noted, however, that while the denial of a gun purchase application can trigger an investigation, authorities do not always have enough information to make an immediate arrest.
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