Grasping at straws

Straw purchases.  This being the silly season, the bogeyman who buys guns for prohibited persons is one of the stage props the Democrats will be trotting out to scare voters.  Republicans, by contrast, will accuse Democrats of lax enforcement of current laws in the hopes of building a consensus through fear for stricter control.

This, at least, is the claim of Dana Loesch in a commentary for the NRA, “Wrist Slaps Do Nothing.”  Her particular example of a straw purchaser who deserves sterner punishment is Jalita Johnson, a Georgia resident who bought a gun for her boyfriend, Marcus Wheeler, a felon from Omaha, NE who told her what gun to buy and gave her the money.  Wheeler used the gun to murder Omaha police officer Kerrie Orozco and was himself killed by another officer in the gunfight.

Johnson has been sentenced to a year of probation, a sentence that has drawn the outrage of Loesch and the Omaha Police Department.  The reaction of Orozco’s fellow officers is understandable, and the opinions of someone with a political agenda are unsurprising.  But it’s good for the rest of us to take a step back and consider the matter from a dispassionate point of view.

According to a sentencing memorandum filed with the Northern District Court of Georgia, Johnson was unaware that Wheeler was a prohibited person.  She dated him for four months prior to his death, accepting his claim that he worked as a sound engineer for concerts.  She states that Wheeler asked her to buy the gun for him since it was cheaper in Georgia, but he couldn’t buy it there since he wasn’t a resident of that state.

Giving a firearm as a gift is legal in most states, so long as you have no reason to believe that the recipient is a prohibited person, though buying it as a stand-in for someone else is the nefarious straw purchase.  It’s also illegal knowingly to give or sell a gun to someone who lives in another state without going through a licensed dealer.  So in the most generous reading of what Johnson did, she committed a crime.

The filing with the court on Johnson’s behalf asks for a sentence much less than the maximum possible for several reasons, including her young children, her history of following the law generally, and her current job that she would lose if she went to prison.  In fairness, Officer Orozco was also a mother, also was presumably law-abiding, given her work in the OPD, and did in fact lose her job—by dying.  A better argument—perhaps not in legal terms, but to an onlooker—is that, again in the best case scenario, Johnson was deceived by a criminal.  She participated in her own deception, doing something Wheeler told her was against the law.  At the same time, anyone who has been in a relationship knows that the persuasion of a romantic partner is powerful.  What she did was wrong, but there is a mitigating factor, and we have to take that into account.

Johnson is now convicted of a firearms crime.  She is now a prohibited person.  As I said above, I can understand the desire to strike out—I almost wrote Loesch out—at someone over the outrage that was committed.  But one of the hard realities of life is that in cases in which the murderer dies in the act, the primary cause of the crime is gone.

What can we do?  We can work to reduce the number of Wheelers in the world.  Reforming our drug laws, strengthening penalties against crimes of violence, and spending the money that our schools need are answers for this.  Trying to score points with the law-and-order crowd by blaming Democrats for soft sentences is only furthering divisions, exactly what we don’t need in defending gun rights.

The views and opinions expressed in this post are those of the author’s and do not necessarily reflect the position of

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