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Illegal Dealer Sold Killer His Gun

July 7, 1999

CHICAGO (AP) _ Benjamin Smith wanted a gun and he did what everyone is supposed to do: He got a gun owner ID card, filled out an application at an Illinois gun shop and returned three days later to pick up his weapons.

He’d been rejected _ a background check showed that an ex-girlfriend had taken out a protection order against him because of abuse _ so he hit the streets and in just three days had two handguns from an illegal dealer.

Three days after that, authorities say, the white supremacist started the rampage that killed two people and wounded nine others _ all of them black, Jewish or of Asian descent.

Smith’s experience and the devastation he wrought has renewed the debate over gun control just weeks after Congress considered _ but did not agree on _ new restrictions.

``This unfortunately hits home the point that we have to start regulating the secondary market as well,″ including gun shows, unlicensed gun dealers and sales over the Internet, said Lisa Morel Las, the director of the Illinois Council Against Handgun Violence.

The arguments echo those in the wake of the April massacre at Columbine High School in Colorado and the recent debate in Congress: Gun control activists say the case demonstrates the inadequacy of the nation’s gun laws, while the gun lobby says the problem is lax enforcement.

Lt. Dave Sanders, a spokesman for the Illinois State Police, said the state issued Smith the gun owner’s ID card on June 18 because of errors in the protection order, which _ among other things _ listed Smith’s middle initial as ``A.″ His eye color and weight also didn’t match.

Smith tried to buy two 9 mm handguns and a shotgun on June 23 at Heights Gun and Hunter Supplies in Peoria Heights, said Jerry Singer, an agent with the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms.

After being turned down, Smith bought a Bryco .380-caliber semiautomatic handgun on June 26 and .22-caliber pistol on June 29 from an illegal dealer who already was being investigated by the ATF, Singer said.

Both guns were found with Smith’s body after he killed himself Sunday near the southern Illinois town of Salem. Tests showed that weapons of those calibers were used in the spree.

The National Rifle Association argues the system broke down even before Smith stepped out of the store and into the world of illegal gun dealers.

Smith’s ex-girlfriend, Elizabeth Sahr, had secured the protection order, saying he had physically and mentally abused her and that she was ``hiding and in fear for my life.″ It took effect in April 1998.

Federal law prohibits convicted felons and anyone under such an order from purchasing a firearm. Smith’s application was denied at the gun shop, and the NRA says he should also have been arrested.

``The system failed,″ said James Baker, the chief lobbyist for the NRA. ``Why did it fail? Because there is too little enforcement of existing federal gun laws, and that’s the real tragedy here.″

Federal authorities say it’s not that simple.

``The system worked in this case by not allowing firearms to be sold to Mr. Smith,″ Singer said. He said that while a denial can trigger an investigation, authorities simply do not have enough information to make an immediate arrest.

The name of the unlicensed dealer who sold Smith the guns has been turned over to federal prosecutors for possible charges, Singer said. The dealer’s name was not disclosed.

Smith, 21, a member of a white supremacist group called the World Church of the Creator, distributed hate literature while he was a student at the University of Illinois and Indiana University in Bloomington.

Authorities say his holiday rampage included shootings in Chicago, two of its suburbs, three other Illinois cities and Bloomington. Killed were former Northwestern University basketball coach Ricky Byrdsong and Won-Joon Yoon, a South Korean doctoral student at Indiana University.

``What (is) America, which is known as the world model country, doing while the American flag, a symbol of freedom, equality and justice, is being torn apart by the gun spree?″ Yoon’s father, Shin-Ho Yoon, asked Tuesday.

Authorities are trying to determine Smith’s motive and if he had any outside assistance. FBI agent Doug Garrison said Matt Hale, the supremacist group’s leader, would not be implicated in the spree simply for his beliefs.

``But if we expect that a person’s planned activities or activities violate federal or state law, that’s obviously a concern for law enforcement,″ Garrison said.

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