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Following the Gun: Every Stop Is Life Or Death For LEOs

Following the Gun: Every Stop Is Life Or Death For LEOs

The casket of Phoenix Police Officer Sgt. Sean Drenth, who died in the line of duty, is brought in for his funeral Monday, Oct. 25, 2010, in Phoenix. [AP Photo]

Washington Post via YellowBrix

November 22, 2010

WASHINGTON – The compact stainless-steel .45-caliber pistol was forged in a factory in Brazil in the summer of 2006 – 4,700 miles and two years away from a fateful encounter on a narrow North Philadelphia street near Temple University.

The gun, a 10-shot Taurus Model PT 145 Millennium Pro, was shipped from Porto Alegre to Miami, and then to a wholesale firearms distributor in South Carolina before arriving at a pawnshop about 80 miles away in rural Lancaster. From there, the $250 firearm began a 680-day odyssey through at least four states, four owners and two crime scenes before ending up in the hands of a 27-year-old parolee who used it to kill police officer Patrick McDonald.

As part of an investigation of the deaths of 511 police officers killed by firearms since 2000, The Washington Post took an in-depth look at the circuitous paths taken by two guns. One is the Taurus. The other is a .380-caliber FEG semiautomatic pistol used in the slaying of an Indiana state trooper.

Both are handguns – the weapon most often used to kill police officers in the past decade. And both deaths occurred after traffic stops, the situation in which officers most often lose their lives.

The two guns were initially sold by federally licensed firearms dealers, the Taurus at the South Carolina pawnshop, the .380 at a high-volume gun store outside Chicago. At least three guns sold at the Chicago area store, Chuck’s Gun Shop, turned up in fatal shootings of police, the most of any store in The Post’s review.

The .380’s sale involved a “straw purchaser,” a person who buys a gun on behalf of someone else and falsely claims to be the intended owner. The Taurus’s sale looked like a straw purchase, with the man who first bought the gun quickly selling it to a felon for a $150 profit.

Even when guns wind up being used to shoot police officers – crimes that receive intense attention from investigators and prosecutors – straw purchasers escape punishment more often than not. The Post review looked at 16 straw purchasers who bought guns later used to kill police officers. Seven were prosecuted.

“Straw purchasers are the biggest problem in any state,” said Lt. Vince Testa of the Philadelphia Police Department’s firearms- identification unit. “That just puts more guns on the street and, unfortunately, kills police officers.”

The two cases show the unpredictable paths taken by guns, moving from hand to hand into the grasp of criminals, falling off the radar and reappearing with sudden, fatal violence.

In one case, a 19-year-old felon acquires a handgun casually, as payment for a bet on a game of basketball, tucks it into his pants and later uses it to kill an Indiana trooper. In the other, a fugitive from a Philadelphia halfway house tries to escape from a pursuing officer and pulls the gun as they fight on the street. Both stories illustrate how firearms dramatically increase the danger in already tense situations, creating irrevocable outcomes from panicky decisions.

“I even talked to him about chasing bad guys down an alley when he knew they were armed, but he was absolutely fearless,” Larry McDonald, father of the slain Philadelphia officer, said in an interview with The Post on March 31, a week before he died of a heart attack. "He said, ‘Dad, I can’t worry about that.’ "

The .45-caliber Taurus semiautomatic pistol arrived at the Lancaster Pawn Shop in South Carolina on Nov. 9, 2006. Four days later, Jason Mack, 27, a self-described country boy fascinated by firearms, bought it for $250. At the same time, he purchased a smaller gun, a Kel-Tec P-3 .380-caliber pistol that Mack called a “pocket rocket.”

Mack lied on the required federal paperwork, answering no to a question about whether he used illegal drugs. In fact, Mack, who worked as a laborer for a masonry business, later testified that he had smoked marijuana every day since he was 13. But he had no criminal record, and the required background check did not prevent him from buying a gun.

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