Prosecutor says drugs, guns go hand in hand
CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- While combating the prescription drug epidemic remains a priority for U.S. Attorney Booth Goodwin's office, he says prosecuting gun crimes is also on the forefront of his agenda.
The two often go hand in hand, he said.
His office mostly sees those charged with being a felon in possession of a firearm but also has prosecuted a number of cases involving a person selling drugs and being found in possession of a gun.
"It's true that guns are a tool of the trade for drug trafficking," Goodwin said. "Selling drugs is dangerous, but there's also a greater chance of violence when someone is carrying a gun."
He said a drug dealer carrying a gun could face a minimum sentence of five years under U.S. Code when sentenced. If that person is caught selling drugs again with a firearm in his or her possession, an additional 25 years can be added to the sentence.
The sentence also can hinge on how the weapon is used in a crime. Those guidelines also apply to those committing violent crimes.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Steve Loew said a person brandishing a gun in commission of a crime faces a minimum of seven years in federal prison. If the gun is fired, that's 10 years in prison.
And if someone is killed, the death penalty is possible, Loew said.
The guidelines came into play in January when Morgan Marie Mullins, a Lincoln County woman who robbed a bank and nursing home at gunpoint, was given a 10year federal prison sentence.
Mullins, an admitted drug addict, stole prescription drugs from the Putnam County nursing home where she worked and cash from the Lincoln County bank her family had used for years.
Because a gun was brandished, she faced a mandatory minimum sentence of seven years.
Goodwin said his office also is seeing a number of breaking-andentering offenses involving the theft of firearms. A person who possesses a stolen firearm could face charges even if they did not steal the weapon.
"It's an epidemic," he said. "People are breaking into homes to steal guns to sell for drugs. They don't have to be the person who stole the gun to be charged either."
Goodwin said it is illegal for a person to possess a firearm with an obliterated serial number, meaning the number has been removed, scratched off or distorted.
The office also sees a number of cases involving "straw purchases," meaning a person who buys a firearm from a licensed dealer for another person, who may or may not be permitted to purchase or possess the weapon.
Loew recalled the case of James Gray, a convicted felon from New Jersey, who found a taxi driver in West Virginia to buy guns for him. It happened a little more than 10 years ago, he said.
Gray could not buy a gun because of his status as a felon. The form that must be filled out asks several questions that could determine whether a person is eligible to purchase a gun. For example, it asks whether the would-be buyer has been convicted of a felony. The FBI conducts the background checks once those forms are returned to the retailer.
The taxi driver lied on the forms, claiming the weapons were for her, and bought between 50 and 100 guns for Gray, Loew said. When the same person buys multiple firearms over a 30-day period, red flags begin to go up, he said.
Agents from the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives spoke to the woman, and she admitted what she had been doing and agreed to cooperate. The next time she purchased weapons for Gray, officers were there to arrest him.
Both were charged and convicted, although the taxi driver, whose name was not given, received a lighter sentence because she cooperated.
Goodwin said people often express fear that a public firearms registry would identify the owners of guns. He said firearms currently are tracked by make, model and serial number, and that information is provided only if a person buys a gun from a licensed dealer.
Goodwin declined to comment on gun control proposals being debated across the nation.
He said it was his understanding that none of the current proposals before Congress conflicted with the Second Amendment.
"We're going to continue what we've always been focused on and that's keeping guns out of the hands of dangerous people," Goodwin said.
Contact writer Ashley B. Craig at email@example.com or 304-348-4850.