Elmer Smith | Murder epidemic rampages through mile-wide loopholes

IT'S THE MOST familiar illustration of the crime fight, rows of Glocks and Tech 9s set out on a table like some smorgasbord of deadly weapons.

The good guys used to pose triumphantly behind the arrayed arsenal as if this seizure marked some significant juncture in the war on drugs, the war on crime or whatever war we were waging at the time. Not so much now that it's clear we're not winning.

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Law enforcement doesn't seem as pumped up these days about displaying booty from gun busts, as at this 2006 news conference.

Instead, it's mostly just a panoramic view of the L-shaped automatics and fully loaded banana clips that belch out a few dozen rounds before your homicidal maniac has to stop shooting long enough to reload.

They didn't even bother with a photo last week when Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives agents announced indictments of three Philadelphia men who had sold 22 illegal weapons. ATF agents say Jose Luis Guzman, Jairo Correa-Merejildo and Eugenio Santiago-Mejias set up shop outside a Kensington schoolyard and sold their deadly wares as if they were peddling ice cream from a Mister Softee truck.

On Sunday, police thwarted a home invasion in the 22d Police District and seized seven guns. Two of them had been reported stolen; the serial number of another had been filed off. No photo this time, either.

But a clear picture is emerging of a city where more people lose their lives to thugs wielding guns bought in straw purchases, or guns the owners say they didn't know were missing until police knocked on their doors to tell them their guns were used in crimes.

"Fact is that, right now, 86 percent of our homicides are by handgun," Police Commissioner Sylvester Johnson told me yesterday. "It's probably the highest percentage of any city in America."

Philadelphia police took about 6,000 guns off the street last year. Gun buy-backs and turn-ins accounted for another 1,000. ATF agents acting in conjunction with a unit from the D.A.'s office have seized hundreds and prosecuted the perpetrators.

Not only has all of that failed to turn off the tap, but we're not even slowing the flow.

A conversation with John T. Hageman, special agent and media liaison for the local ATF office, showed me how overmatched police and federal agents are.

"When you talk to people who have made straw purchases of guns," Hageman said, "they don't even think in terms of putting dangerous weapons on the street.

"They just do it to pick up a few dollars. It's like picking up a couple hours of overtime pay.

"They've got to have someone who is over 21 with a clean record, so they use girls mostly.

"I try to tell them, whether it's a boyfriend or whatever, 'One day your child could get shot by a gun you bought.' "

The crowning irony is that federal law thwarts almost every effort to control gun trafficking. Laws supposedly written to help track the movement of guns are weighed down with clauses and caveats.

"Everybody jumps on the straw-purchase bandwagon," Hageman said. "But missing inventory from licensed gun dealers is a major source of the guns that end up on the streets."

The federal gun code supposedly requires gun dealers to report guns stolen or missing within 24 hours. But the code really requires dealers only to report them 24 hours after they notice they're missing.

"It doesn't even require them to take an inventory," Hageman said. "So when we check inventory against our acquisition and disposition book, we may find 75 missing. The dealer can file a theft report then and tell us he doesn't know where they went."

ATF can't prosecute a licensed dealer unless it can prove that he was in league with a straw purchaser and that he made a profit from the sale.

"Even if we revoke his license," Hageman said, "he can transfer the guns to his personal stock and sell them off without having to go through our annual inspection."

You can seize guns by the thousands and lock up straw purchasers every day. Until we rewrite those gun laws, we'll keep on setting records and setting tables. *