Colorado Incident Prompts Questions About Out-Of-State Gun Sales
A Florida teen arrived at Denver International Airport last month and then purchased a shotgun at a gun store in the suburb of Littleton. What followed was a massive, frantic manhunt and the closure of schools all over northern Colorado. Questions about the legality of that gun purchase persist.
18-year-old Sol Pais had made ‘credible threats' and was infatuated with the Columbine High School shooting, according to the FBI. On April 15th, however, she passed a criminal background check and was able to buy a gun. Two days later , law enforcement reported finding her dead, near Mount Evans, from an apparent self-inflicted gunshot wound.
Later that day, in a Facebook post, the store, Colorado Gun Broker, explained that the young woman did purchase a gun there, that the purchase was legal and that they "had no reason to suspect she was a threat to either herself or anyone else."
In Colorado, the minimum age to buy a long gun is 18 and there is no waiting period. But the young woman was from Florida.
Under federal law, a purchase by an out-of-state buyer must comply with state law in the state where the sale is happening as well as the state the buyer is from. In Florida, the age to buy any gun is 21. The law revising age restrictions, passed last year after the Parkland school shooting.
What Gun Shops Say About Out-Of-State Buyers
Federally licensed firearms dealers are required to determine the lawfulness of gun sales including by keeping up with gun laws in other states in the case of out-of-state sales.
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The Bureau of Alcohol Tobacco & Firearms (ATF) is required to help firearms dealers stay on top of state laws by publishing an updated compilation of these laws for Federal Firearms Licensees. But on ATF's website, the Florida laws are current as of 2016, before the law change that raised the age limit for purchases.
Gun shops have a variety of experiences navigating these sales.
"We don't have much experience at all, to be honest. They're extremely rare," Jacquelyn Clark, owner of Bristlecone Shooting in Lakewood, Colorado, said. "And even more rare when it gets called into question the laws in the other states. We've never actually dealt with a situation where somebody is between 18 and 21 or coming from a state with recently changed gun laws."
Clark said they almost had one of these situations recently. Someone under 21, from out of state, came in wanting to buy a rifle. Bristlecone staff suspected that it was a straw purchase, someone purchasing a firearm for someone else, illegally.
"So we never even got to the finish line," Clark said, "But that would be the first one that I would have record of where we would have really needed to figure out how to handle, procedurally, how to handle a sale like that.
Michael Cargill, the owner of Central Texas Gun Works in Austin, said that his store's policy is to deny sales to out-of-state buyers.
"People will walk in, they'll want to buy a rifle, they'll want to buy an AR and we're not going to sell them that firearm because they're from another state," Cargill said. "The reason is because the laws change so much and I cannot keep up with what the changes are. And I just don't want to make a mistake."
Cargill brought up the Texas sporting goods store that sold the Sutherland Springs shooter his guns and ammunition. In February, families and survivors of the church massacre that left 27 people dead, sued the store, arguing that, in Colorado, where the shooter reportedly lived, the sale of the large-capacity magazine would have been illegal.
"Honestly, you have to know the laws if you're in this business," Cargill said of his store's own policy. "Ignorance of the law is no excuse. I don't want to get sued and I don't want to be charged criminally, so we don't do the sale at all."
A Key Subsection In Florida Law
Ryan Cleckner, a firearms industry lawyer, points to one part of Florida's firearms law that he believes could be key to understanding legal questions around the controversial Colorado sale:
(c) This subsection does not apply to the purchase, trade, or transfer of a rifle or shotgun by a resident of this state when the resident makes such purchase, trade, or transfer from a licensed importer, licensed manufacturer, or licensed dealer in another state.
Cleckner says it is possible that ATF could be interpreting this provision to mean that the Florida law wouldn't apply to an out-of-state purchase. This subsection, however, appears in a different part of the law than the age restriction language.
The FBI investigation into the Colorado incident is ongoing. In an email, Susan Medina, a spokesperson with the Colorado Bureau of Investigation (CBI), the state agency that processes background checks, wrote that the background check last week showed nothing that would have prevented Sol Pais from legally buying a gun.
"We understand the concerns surrounding this issue and have already considered ways to strengthen the process," she wrote in an email to Guns & America. "The CBI is currently working with a vendor to develop enhancements to assist firearms dealers in their process of reviewing the laws of other states — as they are required to do — prior to submitting the background check request to the CBI."
KERA is part of Guns & America, a national reporting collaborative of 10 public media newsrooms focusing attention on the role of guns in American life. You can find more Guns & America coverage here, and learn more about the collaboration here.