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FIRST PERSON Sunday Morning Special

How I bought a semiautomatic in two minutes-no questions asked.
By Kathryn Jones |

WHILE OTHER PEOPLE WERE sipping their coffee or sitting in church on a recent Sunday morning, I went shopping. I bought my first handgun.

This is no cheap little Saturday night special I can tuck in my purse. It’s an 11-inch long. .22-caliber semiautomatic pistol that will fire 30 rounds as fast as I can pull the trigger.

Little did 1 know that a few weeks later I’d be staring down the barrel of one very much like it.

I bought the exotic-looking black Scorpion, made by a Miami company called Intratec, in about two minutes for $200 cash. I didn’t fill out any paper work. The guy who sold me the gun didn’t ask my name, why I wanted it or what I was going to do with it.

And it was all perfectly legal.

“I’VE NEVER BOUGHT A GUN BEFORE,” I TOLD THE MIDDLE-AGED, SPEC- tacled man who was selling (he pistol at a Fort Worth flea market. “What do you need? A driver’s license or any identification?”

“Cash,” he said.

“Do 1 need to get some kind of form to fill out?” I asked.

“Cash,” he said again, smiling slightly.

The transaction lasted as long as it took me to count out 10 $20 bills.

He snapped the gun into its black plastic carrying case. “Thanks. Hope you enjoy it,” he said.

I inquired about ammunition. The Scorpion uses high-velocity .22~caliber bullets, which have more gunpowder than regular bullets and travel faster and farther. The seller had a box for $8. Wal-Mart sells a box of 50 for $2.64.

Gun purchases like mine happen every day at garage sales in Dallas, flea markets in Canton and through newspaper classified ads. Someone has a gun for sale. Someone buys it. No questions asked, no forms to fill out letting the authorities know that a gun has changed hands.

Generally speaking. Congress has said gun sales between private individuals should not be regulated unless the transaction crosses state lines. That’s opened the door for a huge “gray market” dealing mostly in used guns.

Licensed gun dealers-gun stores, pawn shops and gun brokers-are required by the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms to complete a yellow form, called a firearms transaction record, with each gun sale. The dealer keeps the form on file in case authorities ever need to trace a gun. The document asks for general information about the buyer and any criminal history. It also asks whether the gun buyer has ever been dishonorably discharged from the armed services or renounced his or her U.S. citizenship-as Lee Harvey Oswald was and did. Those questions were added to the form after John F. Kennedy’s assassination in Dallas.

The state doesn’t require that guns be registered. The Texas Penal Code does, however, specify the way handguns can be transported.

Law enforcement agencies say they don’t know how many new and used guns are sold through licensed gun dealers, let alone how many firearms are bought and sold privately. There are just too many guns and transactions to track, they say.

“But there are millions of guns,” says James Cavanaugh, assistant special agent in charge of the Bureau of Alcohol. Tobacco and Firearms’ Dallas division. “There are probably millions of sales.”

The proliferation of guns worries law enforcement officials, including Dallas Police Chief Bill Rathburn. He has proposed a waiting period of 10 to 15 days for the purchase of handguns. He also favors a thorough check of potential gun buyers’ criminal and mental health records.

“Its time to reflect on what is happening in our cities and really work to reverse it,” Rathburn said in November, when Dallas broke its previous homicide record of 444 deaths in one year.

Many of the guns used in crimes locally were obtained illegally in burglaries, say Dallas Police Department detectives. But criminals also go to the unregulated sources. The Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms bureau found in a survey of armed career criminals that 6 percent bought their firearms at gun shows and flea markets-about the same amount that bought them at gun stores.

“They’ll buy from flea markets, private citizens, garage sales,” Cavanaugh said. “They’ll steal them from homes and gun stores. Criminals literally get them anywhere.”

Mass murderer George Hennard went to gun dealers for the 9mm semiautomatic Glock-17 and Ruger P-89 pistols he used in the Luby’s cafeteria killings in Killeen. He filled out the federal forms. He registered the guns with the Las Vegas Police Department in Nevada, where he was living at the time. So even if Hennard hadn’t killed himself with his last bullet after murdering 23 people, federal agents could have traced the gun to him.



I WONDERED HOW LONG AND HOW LITTLE MONEY it would take for someone like me-who knows nothing about guns or where to buy them-to acquire a semiautomatic pistol without filling out the forms.

Just to get acquainted with handguns and their prices, I took a trip to a gun show at the Dallas Convention Center.

Hundreds of dealers had set up booths selling everything from assault rifles to stun guns, even a machine gun, As licensed dealers, gun show vendors must fill out transaction forms on sales. The machine guns require special registration.

A gun show is a bizarre event for a novice. Most of the people who go to the shows are hunters, target shooters and gun collectors-law-abiding citizens exercising their constitutional right to bear arms. Then there are a few weirdos. Survivalists outfitted in combat fatigues. War buffs dressed like Nazi officers.

At this show, held just weeks after the Killeen shootings, dealers had plenty of the plastic-framed Glock and Ruger semiautomatics for sale, as well as a few Uzi 9mm submachine guns, commercial versions of the military Uzis used by the Israeli army. They were selling for $469 to $499.

“You could walk into a McDonald’s with one of these and get someone’s attention, couldn’t you?” joked one gun enthusiast as I looked over an Uzi.

Next I scanned the classified ads. Most newspapers have a separate heading for guns, listed under “merchandise.”

Someone was trying to sell an Uzi and accessories. An ad in the same column offered an AK-47 assault rifle with 100 rounds of ammunition for $400. “Will buy, sell, trade anything,” the ad said. Another ad for an AK-47 began: “Freeze!” Still another ad sought guns: “Wanted: ASSAULT RIFLES.”

I decided to try to buy a gun first at that all-American ritual of cheap enterprise, the garage sale. I knew someone who bought a Smith & Wesson .357 magnum at a garage sale for $150. The gun came with armor-piercing bullets, sometimes called “cop killers,” which can penetrate bulletproof vests and even car engine blocks. And a neighbor once sold a sawed-off shotgun with a pistol grip at her yard sale.

Two garage sales advertised in the newspaper listed guns among the offerings. One sale was on a tree-lined street in the Lake Highlands neighborhood near White Rock Lake. The other was on a rural lane near Eagle Mountain Lake in northwest Tarrant County. I went to both and found hunting rifles and shotguns lying on tables next to stacks of dishes, stuffed animals and paperbacks. But I’d decided I really wanted a semiautomatic.

Next 1 tried a flea market on the Jacksboro Highway in Fort Worth. People flock there every weekend under a big, corrugated tin roof to sell every variety of merchandise out of their car trunks.

“Anyone out here sell guns?” I asked a man selling knives. No, he said, but try the flea market at “the barn.”

The cattle barn on Fort Worth’s west side behind the Will Rogers Coliseum is exactly that: During stock shows the big shed is full of bulls. On weekends the barn is converted into the equivalent of a huge garage sale, a melting pot of humanity and its possessions.

There were guns aplenty. The first one I spotted was what the cops call a Saturday night special: small, light, cheap, easily available. The kind of gun frequently used in violent crimes.

BELIEVE, BUI D MAGAZINE’S BEST & WORST TURNS 15 YEARS OLD THIS TIME AROUND. AH, THE PRIME OF ADOLESCENCE…

IF YOU’RE TINGLING WITH DEIA VU (LAST ONE, PROMISE). CALM DOWN. YES, YOU HAVE READ THOSE WORDS BEFORE. YOU READ THEM LAST YEAR. WHEN AND MAGAZINE STAFFER WAS ASSIGNED TO FIND OUT JUST HOW MANY YEARS WE’D BEEN COMPILING THIS ANNUAL GAFFEFEST. AFTER LENGTHY RESEARCH, HE CONCLUDED THAT B & W WAS CELEBRATING ITS 15TH BIRTHDAY. HE WAS WRONG: THIS IS THE 15TH ANNIVERSARY YEAR OF BEST & WORST. AS FOR THE STAFFER, HIS EXCITING 35,000-WIRD FEATURE ON THE INCREASING USE OF AN ASPHALT-MOLYBDENUM MIXTURE TO REPAIR CRACKED SIDEWALKS IS DUE ANY DAY NOW.

WHICH BRINGS US BACK TO WHAT IS ALWAYS THE REAL REASON FOR BEST & WORST: LAUGHTER. IF WE CAN’T LAUGH AT OUR OWN PRATFALLS AND SCREW-UPS, WHOSE CAN WE LAUGH AT? YOURS? OKAY.

I felt no sense of extra security in owning the gun, and as it turns out, I’m glad I didn’t keep it.

Two weeks after turning the weapon in to editors at D Magazine, I was robbed at gunpoint in my home. I immediately recognized the gun shoved in my face and later pointed at my head as I lay face-down on my bed, my hands tied behind my back.

It was a black, semiautomatic pistol.

I was able to give the cops a pretty good description of the gun since I’d been shopping for one. Where did the robbers-a teenage couple-get it, I wondered? And the guy wanted more guns. One of the first things he asked was whether I had any firearms in the house.

In a nightstand drawer was my husband’s .38-caliber revolver. The guy found it and tossed it on the bed, next to my face. I stared at it during the 20 minutes he ransacked the house. I was afraid that when he finished he would come back and kill me with that gun.

When they were through searching the house, the robbers took my TV, VCR, car- and the .38. I’m sure the kid would have stolen the .22 if I had kept it. I never would have had a chance to use it to defend myself. Everything happened too fast.

So now there’s probably another gunon the street, making the rounds of pawnshops or flea markets or even garage sales.I can’t help wondering, where does the cycle end?

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