by Dave Workman
The alleged “straw purchase” that led to the now-infamous broadcast on Boston’s WRKO that landed anti-gun Boston Globe columnist Steve Bailey and Stop Handgun Violence founder John Rosenthal in the focus of federal investigators may have been preceded by other attempts by the men to purchase guns at a Lebanon, NH, gun show in 2005.
The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) opened an investigation into the transaction after the Second Amendment Foundation (SAF) and other gun organizations called for an inquiry.
Gun Week has learned from a source close to the investigation that the columnist and/or his companions at the Lebanon gun show in late 2005 apparently approached more than one dealer with inquiries about buying firearms. The dealer who finally sold them the gun asserted that he was not aware that the buyer was with Baileyas both Bailey and Rosenthal have allegeduntil about three months later, after reading a copy of Bailey’s Nov. 30, 2005 Globe column that circulated around the gun show. He promptly alerted New Hampshire state police to what he thought may have been a crime.
Meanwhile, in a battle of words with SAF founder Alan Gottlieb, Bailey portrayed himself as a victim of “gun lobby” bullying after the investigation was initiated. Gottlieb countered that Bailey is instead “a victim of his own big mouth” and the gun control laws he has supported.
Gun Week has learned that Bailey has been digging into the operations of SAF and its sister organization, the Citizens Committee for the Right to Keep and Bear Arms.
Bailey had disclosed the purchase of a .38-caliber Charter Arms revolver at the gun show nearly two years ago during a July 10, 2007 on-air conversation he had with WRKO-AM talk hosts Tom Finneran and Todd Feinburg. Rosenthal joined the conversation via cell phone. In the aftermath, Gottlieb called for a criminal investigation of the purchase, and he said The Globe should fire Bailey for a “serious ethical breach.”
Bailey reported slipping $240 to a New Hampshire man identified as Walter Belair, a former prison guard now employed by the city of Manchester, so that Belair could purchase a handgun that Bailey had apparently asked about buying. The dealer turned Bailey down because he is a Massachusetts resident, so Bailey asserted that he asked if Belair could purchase the gun and the dealer allegedly said he could.
The dealer offered a different account, insisting that he did not know Belair was with Bailey and Rosenthal when Belair asked about buying the gun that the dealer would not sell to either Massachusetts man.
According to attorney Jerry Belair, Walter’s brother and the legislative director for Stop Handgun Violence, there was no crime because the gun never left Walter’s possession. Jerry Belair told Gun Week that he had asked Walter to accompany Bailey and Rosenthal to the gun show “to show how easy it is” to purchase a firearm that could be subsequently transferred illegally to someone else.
Jerry Belair also stated that there “must be intent” to violate the law for a crime to have occurred. Presumably, that is what the ATF investigation will determine. Jerry Belair defended his brother’s actions, and said he sent an angry e-mail to Gottlieb about demanding an investigation.
The WRKO broadcast ignited a firestorm in the gun rights community. Bailey wrote in a recent column that he is afraid of guns, so instead of actually taking the revolver back to Massachusettsit would have been a felony for him to do sohe said that he left it in New Hampshire with Walter Belair. In an on-air chat with Feinburg July 20, Bailey asserted that Globe lawyers had assured him he is not in trouble because he did not actually take possession of the gun.
That gun is now in the custody of the ATF after two agents seized it on a search warrant they served on Belair at his place of work July 18. According to Bailey, “They had a search warrant and a tape of the radio interview.”
But then Bailey tried to blame “the National Rifle Association and all the NRA knock-offs out there” for trying to intimidate him over his views. It is not clear how Bailey confused SAF with the NRA, or why he brought that organization’s name into the debate. The NRA has not been publicly involved in this controversy.
“Dare to say we need fewer, not more guns in this country, dare to say we need a uniform system for monitoring gun sales in this country and you become a target to be hunted down,” Bailey asserted in his column.
But Bailey also used the column to attack Gottlieb personally about a tax-related conviction more than 20 years ago. Indeed, the day before that column ran, Bailey called Gottlieb twice at his Bellevue, WA, office, focusing on the decades-old tax case rather than on the gun transaction. When the column appeared the following day, Bailey made light of the gun transaction.
Gottlieb quickly fired back with a rebuttal that the newspaper refused to print on its Op-Ed page, but promised to “pass along” to its letters editor. The Globe subsequently asked that Gottlieb’s initial remarks be reduced to a mere 200 words in order to be published in the letters column. Bailey’s column attacking Gottlieb ran more than 700 words. But the original Gottlieb column did appear on-line at both the SAF website (www.saf.org) and on KeepAndBearArms.com.
“Portraying himself as a martyr for gun control extremism does not trump the fact that Bailey is being investigated for violating a federal gun law,” Gottlieb wrote. “His on-air braggadocio brought that down, and being disingenuous about it is flimsy. The ‘gun lobby’ doesn’t dispatch federal agents to investigate people. The audio of his broadcast provided ATF with probable cause, and SAF doesn’t issue search warrants, judges do.
“Bailey’s worst enemy in all of this isn’t the so-called gun lobby,” Gottlieb concluded. “It’s his own big mouth, fed by a giant ego and an overdose of monumental stupidity. He argues that gun shows need tougher regulation. He may provide the example of how that might work.”
Bailey curtly declined to discuss the column with Gun Week, and Finneran did not return calls. Neither Belair, nor another man who was with Bailey and Rosenthal at the gun show, Boston police Officer Andrew Heggie, would return our calls either. Rosenthal did speak with Gun Week (See that interview elsewhere in this issue.)
Bailey’s and Rosenthal’s accounts of the transaction differ.
According to Bailey’s account in his 2005 column: “In the end, we settled on a .38-caliber revolver, a trashy little thing popular with thugs in cities like Boston. Made by Connecticut’s Charter 2000 Inc., in New England’s ‘Gun Valley,’ the revolver retails for $349, but…Belair, picked it up, cash and carry, for just $240. It took Belair, a former prison guard, less than 20 minutes to fill out the federal forms and get approved over the phone. It took me longer to buy a refrigerator at Sears a few weeks ago.”
But then, in the WRKO segment, Bailey described the transaction like this: “We finally settled on a .38 Special. To be fair we took a New Hampshire resident with us who was a guard, a prison guard. It would have been much harder; you would have had a waiting time if you were a Massachusetts resident…
“But he bought it for me,” Bailey continued. “I gave him a couple of hundred bucks. We expensed it to The Globe by the way. One of the first things I learned when I came to The Globe was I never saw a receipt I couldn’t expense.”
But here’s how Rosenthal described the transaction to Gun Week: “We went up to a table. We asked if we could purchase a handgun. I asked specifically, ‘Can I purchase a handgun’ and the dealer said no problem, I just need an ID, so I gave him an ID. He told me I’m from Massachusetts and he can’t sell me a handgun, but I can buy a rifle…Steve said he was most interested in seeing how the handgun purchase goes. I said, ‘Well, how about my friend here, he’s from New Hampshire. Can he do it?’ The dealer said ‘no problem.’ It was clearly a straw purchase…The gun dealer knew full well it was a straw purchase…The dealer knew full well that gun was not staying with the New Hampshire guy, I think.”
He gave a similar account while on the air, speaking from his cell phone.
It may have been that live discussion which provided ATF with probable cause to open an investigation and get a warrant to seize the gun. ATF spokesman Jim McNally told Gun Week that he could not discuss an on-going investigation, or even confirm that one is underway, but in broad terms, he acknowledged that no such investigation would occur without ample reason; that is, on flimsy circumstantial evidence. Given any serious allegation of wrong-doing, ATF would investigate to see if a law had actually been broken, and if any crime had been committed.
For example, McNally said that if two people went to a gun shop and one person handed the other person some money to buy a firearm, and the buyer actually kept the gun, “that’s not a straw purchase.” This is essentially how Jerry Belair described the gun show transaction involving his brother, Walter, and Bailey.
Jim Wallace, executive director of the Massachusetts Gun Owners Action League, was also briefly involved in that July 10 on-air segment, and he clearly believes a straw purchase took place.
However, an attorney interviewed by The Globe’s rival Boston Herald thinks otherwise. Randy Chapman, president of the Massachusetts Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, told the newspaper that “I don’t see a criminal intent there. I just see someone facilitating a news story.”
‘That’s a Felony!’
The July 10 radio segmentwhich Gun Week has reviewed and was available on the WRKO websiteheated up quickly when a caller, identified as “Tony,” demanded to know why Bailey and Rosenthal weren’t under arrest. That quickly got Feinburg’s attention, especially when “Tony” told them that federal gun laws had been violated.
When “Tony” came on the air, he immediately demanded to know when Bailey and the prison guard were going to be jailed. Finneran did not understand.
“It was a straw purchase,” the caller explained. “You cannot purchase a handgun without going through an FFL in your own state…He (Bailey) committed a felony, a federal crime. When’s he going to jail?”
Bailey and Finneran joked about the issue as if “Tony” were making a specious argument. Finneran even mockingly recited to Bailey his Miranda rights.
Other Massachusetts residents, with whom Gun Week spoke, are also convinced at least one or two federal gun laws were violated. Tom Rutherford of Westminster and Bob Young, president of the Hamilton Wenham Gun Club, were appalled at the segment. Both said independently that they believe a crime was committed.
The controversy has gained momentum since Gun Week began investigating. J.R. Labbe, deputy editorial page editor of the Fort Worth, TX Star-Telegram, did a column about the flap several days after the initial radio broadcast. Internet pro-gun chat groups and forums also debated the story as it spread across the country.
Studies Bust Myth
Pro Gun New Hampshire issued a statement about a week after the broadcast, noting that the state regulates gun sales to non-residents. The group also noted that the state requires background checks for all purchases from licensed dealers, even if the transaction occurs at a gun show.
Rosenthal and Bailey have argued that gun shows are an easy source of firearms for criminals, but a study done for the Department of Justice found that less than one percent (0.7 percent) of criminals obtain their guns from gun shows.
However, the fact that their on-air revelation kicked off an investigation might be construed to refute their claim about so-called gun show loopholes because they are now being investigated for the purchase.
Gun Week also reported on another study done for the FBI that focused on cop killers. That study revealed that armed criminals “laugh at gun laws.” One criminal interviewed for the study observed, “All these politicians are screaming about more gun laws, more gun laws. F the gun laws. I never gave a s about the gun laws that are on the books. And, the 8,000 new gun laws would have made absolutely (no difference) whatsoever, about me getting a gun. Why? Because I never went into a gun store or to a gun show or to a pawn shop or anyplace else where firearms are legally bought and sold and picked up a gun, ever.”
This study also found that none of the guns used by any of the study’s subjects were obtained at gun shows.