End easy bail and kid gloves for straw purchasers of guns

A Colorado judge’s decision to give easy bail to the woman who made the straw purchase of a 9 mm pistol allegedly used by Evan Ebel to fatally gun down Colorado’s correction chief and a pizza delivery man demonstrates the simple-minded perils of those pining for “one more gun law” to save “even one life.” Too often our judicial system treats horrific violations of existing gun laws with the equivalent of a shoulder shrug. 

 Sara Marie Vigil, 22, of Thornton bought the 9 mm Ebel is believed to have used in the two slayings from a gun shop in Englewood after passing a background check. The Associated Press reported that Ebel and Vigil were childhood friends and had been “hanging out” after his release from prison.

 Because of his extensive arrest record, Ebel wouldn’t have cleared that same background check. So, Ebel allegedly enlisted Vigil to purchase the pistol, found by Ebel’s body after a car chase and shootout with Texas law enforcement officials ended his killing spree late last month.

 Vigil was arrested for making the straw purchase, but quickly posted $25,000 bail and is said to be resting at home.

 Under federal law, straw purchases such as the one allegedly committed by Vigil are punishable by up to 10 years in prison. In Colorado it is a class 4 felony, with a maximum prison sentence of 16 years. 

 But lax enforcement of state and federal prohibitions on straw purchases has made it the popular recourse for convicted criminals seeking guns. In Chicago, a city that boasts the incongruent distinction of being both murder capital of the galaxy and the city with the nation’s toughest gun laws, a gun violence epidemic has been fed by easy-to-execute-and-scarcely-punished straw purchases.

 “There’s little-to-no punishment for being a straw purchaser,” Brad Beyersdorf, spokesman for the ATF Denver division, told the Denver Post recently. “Gang members know it, drug trafficking organizations know it.”

 While federal law sets a maximum prison penalty of up to 10 years, federal sentencing guidelines suggest as little as 2-3 years. In Chicago one high-profile violation of the federal straw purchase prohibition – a husband and wife were caught in a sting trying to illegally acquire a TEC-9 – resulted in a proverbial slap on the wrist: parole for her and a 40-month federal prison sentence for him. 

 Whether such a light sentence constitutes “justice” in the individual case is debatable. What is not debatable is that judicial kid-glove treatment is no deterrent to a would-be criminal shopping for a straw purchaser.

 A bipartisan bill moving through Congress would increase the allowable federal prison sentence for straw purchases to 15 years. Though a good idea, its practical impact will be little if judges continue to hand down light sentences.

 To all the politicians seeking to save “just one life” from the horrors of gun violence: Why not drop the iron-anvil of the law onto criminals who make straw purchases?  How about tough mandatory sentences to strip discretion from weak-kneed judges who appear to be more concerned with strained corrections budgets and prison overcrowding than they are with protecting good people from bad people who ignore gun laws?  How about no bail and no kid gloves for those who buy guns for recently paroled violent criminals?

 Time will tell whether Vigil knew Ebel’s evil intent when she purchased the gun. Numerous official and media accounts suggest Ebel was a chronically bad actor. Unless she is stupidly naïve in the mold of Manti Tao, Vigil must have known that purchasing a gun for Ebel was a horrific idea. But she did it.

 And how does our judicial system respond?  Cue shoulder shrug. If the past is prologue, Vigil will only get a couple years in the can.

Wanna save one life — even just one life — from the horrible fate of gun violence? Stop punishing law-abiders and start applying the full weight of the law to the likes of Vigil.  Revoke her bail and give her the maximum prison sentence. Give the next would-be straw purchaser something to think about when the next Even Ebel shops for a gun.

Josh Penry is a former minority leader of the Colorado Senate. He is a graduate of Grand Junction High School and Mesa State College.


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