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INDIANAPOLIS — This year, at least 14 Indianapolis residents have been indicted on federal charges related to separate cases of straw purchasing of guns, unlicensed dealing, or both.

Although these cases involve guns allegedly used in violent crimes across state lines, the problem of straw purchasing and gun trafficking is also being seen regionally in central Indiana.

Straw purchasing is essentially when someone buys a gun on behalf of someone else who is not eligible or able to legally buy or possess a gun for reasons that might include a prior felony conviction or a misdemeanor domestic violence conviction.

“The purchase of firearms when done legally, and the use of firearms is perfectly appropriate,” said John Childress, Acting United States Attorney for the Southern District of Indiana. “The problem becomes when those firearms are transferred from legal commerce to an illegal use or illegal commerce.”

A group of law enforcement agencies in central Indiana and federal partners are working together to remove illegal firearms from criminals and track gun crimes and shooting suspects who travel beyond county lines and throughout the state.

“We try to identify when straw purchases occur and do one of two things, either stop or interdict that straw purchase — not allow it to occur — and if it does, to trace the firearm all the way from legal purchase, usually from a retail outlet, to where it is recovered by law enforcement,” said Childress. “Then, either trace it back chronologically or follow it as it passes and to bring charges, as appropriate, against the people who are responsible for that firearm’s illegal purchase and use.”

In August, the Crime Gun Intelligence Center (CGIC), operated out of the Indianapolis Metropolitan Police Department’s East District, officially became a regional task force, now known as the Indiana Crime Guns Task Force (ICGTF).

Right now, the task force has at least 15 open cases it is investigating related to the possible crime of straw purchasing or gun trafficking, according to IMPD Captain Mike Bruin, executive director of the task force. He said some of those cases stem from their connection to shootings in and around Indianapolis.

“Often the weapons that are found at a crime scene are weapons that are obtained illegally. It’s not always the case, but it’s frequently the case,” said Childress.

The task force is made up of law enforcement agencies from Marion County and the seven surrounding counties, plus federal partners including the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms (ATF) and the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Southern District of Indiana.

Bruin said straw purchasing and gun trafficking is something the task force sees “quite a bit.”

“The ATF will tell you that Indiana is a source state for guns, meaning, guns are purchased here and go to other states,” said Bruin.

“It’s a big enough problem where we know these straw purchases feed end violence and by end violence, I mean instances where the firearms are recovered by law enforcement but at a crime scene or in conjunction with someone who should not have one,” Childress said.

It’s a problem Childress said people should be concerned about, regardless of where you live.

“No matter where you live in this city or the county surrounding this city, we are bound together,” he said. “These firearms that we’re discussing, travel. Period,” he continued, “they travel illegally and their use is very hard to predict.”

With every gun that comes into the possession of the task force, Bruin said they look back to determine where it was purchased and determine any red flags that could be indicators it was obtained through a straw buyer or an illegal sale.

“If it’s a really short what we call time to crime, where it’s purchased and then immediately used in a crime, that’s a flag,” said Bruin. “Repeated purchases where the guns come back to the police is definitely a flag. That means the same person is buying a lot of guns that are being used in crimes.”

Bruin said the ICGTF runs down those possibilities and with the way the unit is split up, the task force focuses primarily on violent crime and studying related shooting incidents.

“We have four ATF Special Agents in our task force and they focus primarily on the gun — straw purchasing and the gun trafficking aspect of it,” he said.

Through the use of the National Integrated Ballistic Information Network (NIBIN), the ATF is able to link shootings and other ballistic information and through firearms tracing, special agents work to identify those purchasing the firearms and to develop firearms trafficking patterns.

Bruin said straw purchasing is a crime that can sort of run “undetected for a while,” but between looking for the red flag indicators, recovering hundreds of crime guns, and arresting as many people as guns recovered, he said they are working to clear the streets of these guns and identify those transferring or those selling and buying them illegally.

“Part of the interview — if the person submits to an interview — is ‘where’d you get the gun?’ So we’re always looking at that aspect of it to try to understand the source of guns,” he shared.

Both Bruin and Childress said the efforts regionally are working to help stop the problem before it grows even greater.

Bruin said, “If we can keep guns out of the hands of the people that will use them illegally, obviously we’re gonna prevent some crimes, so instead of investigating a crime that’s happened, it gives us the opportunity to hopefully prevent one.”

He said the problem of the increasing numbers of guns on the street remains a challenge task force officers are working to tackle.

“The problem of people who are prohibited from possessing or carrying a gun carrying it, it’s a big problem. That’s what we do day in, day out,” shared Bruin.

Outside of the task force, which Bruin said has already recovered more than 200 crime guns this year, IMPD, on average would recover an average of about 2,500 guns per year.

“This year, we’ll probably be up around 4,500,” he said. “There’s so many guns out there that we’re definitely swimming upstream on that.”

Straw purchasers crossing state lines

In the recent cases indicted by the U.S. Attorney’s Office Southern District of Indiana, Childress said, “it was the claim, falsely, that they were the actual purchaser of the firearm when they had every intent and actually did transfer to someone else. There in lies one of the federal offenses.”

He said when someone purchases a gun as a straw purchaser and knowingly allows it to be transferred to someone who should not have it, it puts the community at risk for innocent bystanders being caught in the crossfire.

“That transfer in and of itself increases risk, increases the chance of violence and for purposes of our office, is viewed by a significant criminal act and we’re going to act accordingly,” said Childress.

In one recent case announced by the U.S. Attorney’s Office Southern District of Indiana, a 23-year-old Indianapolis man was charged for illegally purchasing a gun that was allegedly used in the deadly shooting of a 7-year-old girl in Chicago.

A federal grand jury indicted Eric Keys Jr. in the illegal purchase of a gun in March of 2021 in Indianapolis.

Court documents allege in April of 2021, Chicago police responded to a shots fired incident, where they located a 29-year-old man and a child sitting in a car, suffering from gunshot wounds.

While the man survived, the child, did not.

Although the U.S. Attorney’s office did not name the child who was killed, two law enforcement officials with direct knowledge of the case, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, identified the child as 7-year-old Jaslyn Adams.

According to court documents, when law enforcement executed a search of the suspected shooter’s residence, they found the gun, which the ATF determined was the one used to kill the child.

Keys Jr. is not the alleged shooter in the case.

Bruin said the allegations in that case serve as an example of what can happen when a gun is given or sold to someone that shouldn’t have it — whether or not a person knew what it would be used for.

“The person that purchased that gun and put it out there on the street and in the wrong hands, they played a role in that seven-year-old’s death,” said Bruin.

“We’ve worked cases in the task force where traffickers put out multiple guns that were involved in multiple homicides,” he added. “They’ve contributed to somebody’s death and I don’t think they think about that at the time they’re doing it.”