Gunrunning in Georgia Draws Fire

The Peach state's growing reputation as a center of illegal gun trafficking worries some lawmakers, but gun enthusiasts warn against more regulation

ON the mean streets of cities such as New York, Boston, and Philadelphia, law enforcement authorities are finding an increasingly alarming connection to the Peach State.

Georgia is emerging as one of the leading sources for gunrunning -- firearms that are illegally trafficked to other regions.

The result is that a growing number of Georgians -- from police to politicians to ordinary citizens -- are urging lawmakers here to enact stricter gun legislation.

Georgia's reputation, they say, is on the line as the state and the city of Atlanta, recently ranked as one of the most violent urban areas in the country, get ready to host the 1996 Olympic Games.

''Police and law-enforcement people all over this country have all been in contact with us in the Georgia legislature urging that we do something about this,'' says state Sen. David Scott (D) of Atlanta. ''We are not only contributing to our own crime rate'' but to crime rates in other cities as well.

Georgia's emergence as a trafficking hub isn't entirely new. For the past five years, it has vied for top gunrunning status with states such as Texas, Ohio, Florida, Virginia, and California.

But the public outcry over its position is just beginning to build. Last year nearly 2,000 handguns recovered from crimes in cities, most of them in the Northeast, were traced back to Georgia, says the United States Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms (ATF).

To help stem the flow, Senator Scott is co-sponsoring a bill that would limit the number of handguns a person could buy in Georgia to one per month. Currently only two other states have similar laws: South Carolina and Virginia.

Virginia enacted its law in 1993 after it was designated as the gunrunning capital of the country. Since then, the state has dropped to No. 9 on the list.

Georgia's status as a top trafficking state stems from a couple reasons, says Bobby Browning, special agent in the ATF's Atlanta office. Because there are a large number of hunters and firearm enthusiasts in Georgia, there are also many gun dealers, and competition for sales is fierce.

Gunrunners can thus buy inexpensive weapons here and sell them in places like New York City where prices are much higher. And easy access to transportation -- the interstate highway system and Atlanta airport -- provides a direct route for shipping guns up the Northeast corridor.

To buy a gun in any state, a person must be a resident of that state. Gunrunners get around this by enlisting a friend, relative, or often someone they don't know to make the transaction. They only have to be sure the person doesn't have a criminal record. (Under federal law, buyers are required to wait up to five days for a background check before they can purchase their guns.)

In Georgia ''there are people willing to do this for $25, $50, or they'll do it for a couple rocks of crack cocaine,'' Mr. Browning says. ''Usually they're buying anywhere from two to 15 handguns at one time at one store, and then they'll go to another store and buy multiple handguns.''

But Chip Walker, spokesman for the National Rifle Association, says these kind of ''horror stories'' shouldn't happen. ''Under current law, if you purchase more than one handgun, a multiple purchase form has to be filled out for you and has to be sent to the ATF,'' he says. ''If they see someone who bought 60 or 70 guns, they have the ability to investigate.''

Browning agrees the ATF has the ability to investigate ''and we do sometimes if we believe someone is trafficking in firearms.'' But, he says, by the time the multiple sales forms are filled out and the ATF receives them in the mail, the gun dealers are already gone.

A bill limiting the number of handguns a person could buy to one per month would help stop this trafficking, supporters contend. But it's likely to face a tough battle in the Georgia legislature, where the pro-gun lobby is strong.

Even if it did pass, it wouldn't affect Harry Clark, owner of Fred's Gun Shop in Lilburn, Ga.

''The only time I normally sell multiple handguns is when some guy comes in, and his wife comes in, and they buy two, one for each,'' he says.

But Mr. Walker of the NRA says the legislation won't solve the gunrunning problem.

''The criminals we're all concerned about -- they're already violating thousands of laws,'' he says. ''Passing one gun a month isn't going to prevent these people from dealing illegally, and it's only going to affect those law-abiding citizens who, for the most part, always obey the law.''

The solution, he says, is for strong mandatory sentences for traffickers. ''Many of these people dealing illegally in firearms have probably been arrested before for numerous violations, and yet they're still out on the street.''

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