Terre Haute — Money and state-issued identification is about all you need to buy a gun in Indiana.
“It’s easy,” according to Jeff Lacher, who works for his dad, Don Lacher, the owner of Patriot Sporting Arms on Maple Avenue. “But a lot of people don’t know the law,” he added.
Talk of guns typically elicits strong reactions. Those who have grown up with firearms, who are avid hunters, or who want to keep or carry a gun for personal protection are often outspoken advocates of the right to bear arms with minor governmental interference. The same individuals usually speak passionately of the need for training and education in the proper use of firearms.
At the other end of the spectrum are those who have not had much exposure to such weapons, who are victims of a gun crime, or whose primary experience with firearms comes from crime dramas on television or crime stories in the newspaper. These citizens are often the strongest advocates of gun regulation, or even all-out bans on guns.
Then there are those in the broad middle who have no particular love or hate for firearms, who may not know much about the weapons or the laws surrounding them, and who have no desire to take a strong anti- or pro-gun stance.
But when gun violence makes the news — whether in the case of an accidental shooting or the intentional brandishing of a firearm in the commission of a crime — the same fear grips everyone in the community.
So many laws
The laws regulating the use, purchase, sale and possession of guns take up many pages in the state codes and federal registers. George Ralston, chief of the Terre Haute Police Department, says there are “lots” of firearms laws on the books — so many that it can be overwhelming. But knowing the rules is essential for anyone who owns or would like to own a gun, he added.
Pat Berarducci, senior special agent with the Federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, says the purpose of gun regulation is to decrease violent or deadly incidents and the fear that comes with the criminal misuse of firearms.
“One of our main priorities in the bureau is to reduce the incidence of gun violence, and we do that with how we apply the laws: going after prohibited people, such as convicted felons and murderers,” he said. “That has a dramatic effect in a community when we can catch them and put them in prison.”
Federal regulations always trump state laws, but may not be enforced often. Most firearms laws that are enforced on a regular basis are state laws.
Tim Morrison, assistant United States attorney with the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Indianapolis, said although circumstances exist in which the federal government will step in and exercise its jurisdiction, “The design is never that the federal government will be the primary enforcer of firearms laws. That is the state’s responsibility,” he said.
Straw purchases, gun shows and carelessness
According to Berarducci, one of the biggest gun issues facing law enforcement today is “straw purchasing,” in which a person without a criminal record makes a firearm purchase for someone whose criminal record prohibits them from owning a gun. Such a violation carries a felony conviction and a sentence of up to 10 years in jail, as well as a $250,000 fine.
The National Shooting Sports Foundation has combined with the ATF to develop a program known as “Don’t Lie for the Other Guy,” to educate federally licensed firearms retailers on detection and deterrence of potential criminal straw purchases.
A related problem is the ability of a person with a criminal record to buy a firearm from an unlicensed, private gun seller at a gun show or other venue. Such private dealers are not regulated, Berarducci said, and are not required to do background checks. However, “if you’re a licensed dealer and you sell firearms at a gun show, you have the same requirements as if you were dealing from your place of business,” he added.
Sgt. Joe Watts of the Indiana State Police said there is no routine checking of gun shows to ensure compliance with the laws. “If someone were to call us and tell us there is a problem, we would look into it,” he said.
Watts said a common problem with illegal ownership is that it often goes hand in hand with other crimes. “On routine traffic stops, we’ll quite frequently obtain illegal firearms, where there’s no permit, or ownership, usually accompanied by alcohol and drugs.” The most common drug state troopers encounter with illegal firearms is methamphetamine, Watts added.
One issue that concerns Ralston of Terre Haute police is the handling of guns by legal owners.
Ralston, who has seen his share of unintentional gun injuries, said he would like to see Indiana require proof of completing a firearm safety course prior to approving a gun permit.
“Of the people who go out and buy guns for home- or self-protection, 95 percent probably have received no training,” he said during an interview last week. “What happens in most cases, someone will go buy a gun, bring it home, throw away the box and instructions, load it up, put it next to the bed — they don’t know the laws, they don’t have the education, and accidents can happen, because of carelessness.
“Using a firearm is like driving a car,” he added. “You should have to pass a test.”
Still, accidental deaths by firearms make up only 0.7 percent of all accidental deaths in Indiana, according to the Centers For Disease Control’s Injury Mortality Reports. Ralston added that many who buy guns for personal protection operate under a false sense of security, without really becoming “mentally prepared” to use deadly force in the event of a home intruder or in a self-defense situation. Training and education can help gun owners understand how to respond in those situations without becoming victims, he said.
A gun is a gun is a gun
Firearms of all makes, sizes and capabilities exist on the market, and several are explicitly prohibited by state law. Indiana does not allow the manufacture, sale or use of sawed-off shotguns or machine guns.
Most other types of firearms are allowed, including various types of “long guns” (rifles, shotguns, other types of guns held and fired with two hands) and “handguns” (pistols, revolvers, other types of guns held and fired from one hand). Semiautomatic weapons are allowed, while fully automatic guns are not.
A fully automatic gun fires repeatedly as long as the trigger is pressed, while semiautomatic means the trigger must be pulled for each shot. In the semiautomatic weapon, the gun ejects the spent shell casing and chambers a fresh round after each shot.
The term “assault weapon” refers to any semiautomatic pistol, rifle or shotgun originally designed for military or police use with a large ammunition capacity. Some of the assault weapon models include the AK-47 and Uzi.
Assault weapons were prohibited in the United States from Sept. 13, 1994, until Sept. 13, 2004, when the ban expired. It was not renewed by Congress.
Can anybody get a gun?
There are state and federal limitations on who can buy or possess legal firearms.
Indiana state law prohibits anyone under the age of 18 from possessing a firearm unless that person is taking a hunter or firearms safety course; target shooting at an established range under adult supervision; or hunting under a valid license.
Limitations on gun possession by those who have been convicted of a crime can be very confusing. Federal law provides a simple guideline: Anyone who is a convicted felon is never allowed to possess a firearm or ammunition. But this law, which is enforced only sporadically, is complicated by various state laws.
Indiana does not allow possession of a gun by a “serious violent felon,” which means someone who has been convicted of, among other crimes, murder, reckless homicide, battery, rape, child molestation, robbery, arson, burglary or drug dealing. Other felons whose offenses might include illegal wiretapping, theft and habitual traffic violations would be prohibited under federal law, but not Indiana law, from possessing a gun.
In Indiana, someone who has been convicted of domestic battery is not allowed to possess a firearm, except in special circumstances.
Berarducci of the ATF said, “If a person is a convicted felon (state or federal), and they possess a firearm, that’s in violation of federal law,” but before an arrest can be made, federal agents must become aware of the situation.
Sometimes agents encounter the illegal possession during an undercover investigation, or they may be tipped off by state or local police. “Maybe a local officer there might arrest someone with a firearm, and on checking the record, finds out a guy can be prosecuted federally,” Berarducci said. “We also investigate anytime a private citizen brings us information if they’ve seen or know of something they’re concerned about,” he said.
He added that in the case of federal prosecutions, if defendants are convicted, they must serve their full sentence, with no probation or parole.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Morrison said possession is usually defined in terms of the individual having “dominion and control” over the firearm. “If you had a firearm in a room with you and it was in a locked safe to which you did not have access, is that dominion and control? Whatever a jury will determine it to be is what it is.”
Morrison added that with only 10 federal attorneys to cover 60 Indiana counties, the federal law “probably does go unenforced a lot of times.”
‘Guns, ammo sold here’
There are about 10 listings in the phone book for gunsmiths in the Wabash Valley. Additional dealers include many sporting goods retailers as well as most Wal-Mart stores, which sell shotguns and rifles.
All retailers who sell or trade handguns are required to become licensed by state law, and those same dealers are required by federal law to have all purchasers submit to the National Instant Criminal System background check.
The NICS procedure is meant to uncover any state, local or federal criminal history of a prospective gun buyer, however the Federal Bureau of Investigation on its NICS Web site (found at www.fbi.gov/hq/cjisd/nics/gunbuyer.htm) explains that “complete arrest and/or judicial information are not always provided on the criminal history record,” which can result in delays and errors.
Ralston said when a person goes to buy a gun, it’s “up to the person to fill out the ATF form truthfully. Then the dealer calls the ATF to confirm the information. Sometimes that happens right away, sometimes it can take 24 hours.” There is no mandatory waiting period for Indiana residents, Ralston added.
Indiana law requires dealers to contact State Police by phone or electronic means to request criminal history information if someone wishes to buy a handgun.
There is no law in Indiana requiring purchasers to have a handgun license at the time of purchase. Ralston said he believes most people who buy handguns have to show a permit, even though “it’s not the law to show it. But most have it,” he said.
Jeff Lacher of Patriot Sporting Arms said, “You don’t have to have a permit to buy it, to take it home, or to leave it at home.” Lacher’s dad, Don Lacher, added that as long as your intent is to protect yourself in your home, there is no need for a license.
In the three years he and his father have been in the gun business, Jeff Lacher said only a few prospective buyers have been denied during the federal background check. Patriot Sporting Arms carries “everything but fully automatic” guns, Jeff Lacher said, with prices ranging from $75 to more than $8,000.
Don Lacher said when it comes to firearms, people have to be educated. He praised gun manufacturers who, he said, are putting out more safety manuals with every weapon.
In Illinois, there are slight distinctions in the laws.
Randy Sutton, who owns Sutton’s Crazyhorse Guns & Archery in Paris, Ill., outlined some of the laws that are different across the state line. One difference for an Illinois resident is the age requirement for buying a handgun. To buy a long gun, an individual must be 18, but to buy a handgun, the purchaser must be 21, Sutton said. Also, Illinois requires individuals to display their firearm identification cards before being approved to buy a gun.
In addition to the NICS background check, an Illinois gun dealer is required to call the Illinois State Police with the potential buyer’s identifying information. “Most of the time it’s an instant approval,” Sutton said.
After approval, the purchaser must wait 24 hours to pick up a long gun, or 72 hours for a handgun.
Sutton said the 72-hour wait for a handgun is part of the “cooling-off” period. “More crimes of passion are committed with handguns,” he added. “This is supposed to keep someone from walking in, finding his wife or girlfriend with someone else, then coming to buy a handgun to shoot them.”
Have gun, will travel
If a person has passed the background check and legally bought a gun, the next set of laws apply to where, when and how the gun can be stored, carried and used.
One of the major differences between Indiana and Illinois state law is the concealed-carry prohibition. Indiana allows licensed gun owners to carry the weapon, loaded, on their person as long as it is out of public view, something that Illinois does not allow.
For gun permits, an individual has to go to the local police department, or sheriff’s department (if that person lives outside city limits). The application process includes payment of both local and state fees. In Indiana, the cost of a four-year hunting and target license is $15. A four-year personal protection license costs $40. This year, it became possible to buy a lifetime license, for either hunting/target or personal protection. The fees depend on whether the individual has a current license. Someone who wishes to buy a lifetime personal protection permit for the first time will pay $125.
The application is sent to State Police for verification of a person’s criminal history and identification, a process that takes three or four weeks, Ralston said. If the application is denied, some part of the fees can be refunded. A gun license can be revoked, he added, if a person is carrying a weapon in an unsafe manner or is convicted of a crime.
Additional laws apply to carrying firearms in a vehicle depending on the type of license a person has. With a hunting/target permit, guns in a vehicle must be separate from the ammunition, Ralston said. “The ammo can be on the front passenger seat and the gun in the trunk,” or vice versa. However, with a personal protection permit, the gun may be loaded, even in a car. Possessing firearms on school property can carry a sentence of up to three years in prison and $10,000 in fines.
Gun regulations, while complicated and cumbersome, are the answer to eliminating gun violence, according to Berarducci.
“This is all about partnerships,” he said. “We work closely with county, city and state law enforcement” to enforce the laws on the books. “That’s why we’re successful in what we do.”
Deb McKee can be reached at (812) 231-4254 or email@example.com.
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