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There’s a hole in the FBI’s national firearms background check system, I think—and it is a hole that gun rights activists will want fixed, pronto. As you are aware, to buy a gun in the U.S. through a licensed dealer, there is an “instant” background check. (I put “instant” in quotes much of the time, it happens very quickly. For some people, especially if they have a very common name, or one very similar to a prohibited person, it can take several days.)
Does the background check system work? Gun control advocates have been complaining for a long time about what they call the “gun show loophole.” By this, they mean that many states have no law prohibiting transfers of firearms between private parties. While there are certainly such transfers taking place at gun shows, they also take place in many other places as well.
I’ve long had some concerns about these private party transfers—and you don’t have to be a gun control advocate to know why. If you were a criminal, and wanted a gun that couldn’t be traced, buying a gun without paperwork would be the way to get an untraceable gun.
I’m sure that most of the people that buy guns from private parties are honorable persons—I’ve done it myself before—but still, there are some bad guys out there. I am not comfortable with the federal government prohibiting private party transfers—but I do see that there is potentially a problem. For that reason, I was rather surprised by a recent incident that suggests that the private party transfer problem may not be as big as I would have guessed.
Do you remember an incident in mid-September when four police officers were shot in Miami, Florida with an AK-47? One of the officers died. Unsurprisingly, it produces a burst of gun control agitation for restoring the federal assault weapon ban that was allowed to expire in 2004, some of it editorials pretending to be news coverage.
The first reports identified a Kevin Wehner as the suspect in these killings, described by one newspaper as “a Jacksonville resident with no criminal record.” But Kevin Wehner went to the police at once, after seeing himself identified as the killer, and explained what had happened.
A man named Shawn Labeet had stolen Wehner’s identity—and soon Labeet had a driver’s license with Kevin Wehner’s name. With that driver’s license, Labeet was soon buying and registering cars in Wehner’s name.
It turns out that Labeet used Wehner’s stolen identity for more than registering cars. According to Miami-Dade police, “Between December 2005 and March 2006, Labeet bought nine guns, six assault rifles and three pistols” using Wehner’s identity. And why did Labeet go to the trouble of stealing Wehner’s identity to buy guns?
Because Labeet was wanted for aggravated assault and battery—and had he tried to buy a gun from a dealer under his own name, the background check system would have denied the purchase—and probably alerted police where to look for Labeet.
Kevin Wehner knew he had a problem. His wallet was stolen while he was vacationing in the U.S. Virgin Islands four years ago. Labeet is from the U.S. Virgin Islands, where Labeet’s half-brother Ishmael murdered eight people on a golf course in 1972. Wehner reported his stolen wallet at the time, and he reported the theft of his identity in 2006, when he started receiving notices concerning cars that he didn’t own.
I have several reactions to this story. The first is that Labeet’s use of a stolen identity to buy guns tells us that the national firearms background check system either works, or scares bad guys into believing that it works. Otherwise, why bother to use a stolen identity to buy guns?
My second thought is that if, as the gun control advocates claim, criminals can easily buy guns at gun shows and from private parties, why did Labeet go to the extra work and risk of buying guns from a licensed dealer, using a stolen identity that might risk getting him caught? This really does suggest that Labeet considered purchasing guns from a dealer less risky than buying them trhough the “gun show loophole” that we hear so much about.
My third thought: shouldn’t identity thefts be reported to the national firearms background check system? Wehner had a clean records; that’s why Labeet, using Wehner’s identity, didn’t get flagged when buying guns. Maybe it is time for the national background check system to get identity theft reports as well. At least from reading over the background check system’s website, I can see any evidence that identity thefts get reported to them.
I agree that if Kevin Wehner had tried to buy a gun from a licensed dealer after having reported the identity theft in 2006, it would have complicated matters for him. There might need to be some additional way of verifying that the real Kevin Wehner was buying a gun—not the false Kevin Wehner. But it would have either slowed down, or prevented Labeet from buying nine guns—including the AK-47 that Labeet used to kill a Miami-Dade police officer. And there’s a real chance that Labeet might have been arrested while trying to buy one of those nine guns.
Shawn Labeet is dead—killed in a gunfight with police some hours after he murdered officer Jose Somohano—who leaves behind a wife and two small children. This didn’t need to happen. I would hope that all gun rights activists would agree that requiring police to report identity thefts to the FBI’s national gun background check system is a good idea.
Clayton E. Cramer is a software engineer and historian. His sixth book, Armed America: The Remarkable Story of How and Why Guns Became as American as Apple Pie (Nelson Current, 2007), is available in bookstores. His web site is http://www.claytoncramer.com.
 Robert Nolin, “Cops at risk as criminals use more assault weapons,” South Florida Sun-Sentinel, September 16, 2007, http://www.orlandosentinel.com/news/local/state/or1gun16sep16,0,7697693.story?coll=or1_tab01_layout, last accessed September 20, 2007; Associated Press, “Officers are increasingly up against high-powered guns,” St. Petersburg [Florida] Times, September 15, 2007, http://www.sptimes.com/2007/09/15/State/Officers_are_increasi_shtml, last accessed September 20, 2007.
 Jamie Malernee and Brian Haas, “Gunman in killing of Miami-Dade police officer was shielded by stolen identity,” South Florida Sun-Sentinel, September 15, 2007, http://www.sunsentinel.com/sflflblabeet0915pnsep15,0,6166078.story, last accessed September 20, 2007.