Rochester Democrat & Chronicle
by David Andreatta, Staff writer
September 20, 2014
Dawn Nguyen, the former neighbor of gunman William Spengler Jr., is arrested for allegedly acting as a straw purchaser for two of the guns Spengler had on him during the Webster shootings on Dec. 24, 2012.
Dawn Nguyen knew she was putting deadly firepower in the hands of a kook when she bought a semiautomatic rifle and a shotgun for William Spengler Jr. in June 2010.
She also knew he had done something so terrible in his past that he could not legally buy the guns himself.
And when news broke on Christmas Eve 2012 that his Webster neighborhood was burning and firefighters had been fatally ambushed, Nguyen knew the shooter could only be Spengler and that she had supplied the weaponry.
So why did part of me feel sorry for Nguyen last week when federal Judge David Larimer sentenced her to eight years in prison for being Spengler’s “straw purchaser”?
It’s not because I’m some bleeding heart. The only people for whom my heart bleeds in this tragedy are Spengler’s victims and their loved ones.
I felt for Nguyen because when she entered that Gander Mountain store with Spengler and lied on the paperwork claiming the guns were for her, she was likely clueless as to the severity of her crime.
Indeed, she seemed oblivious to the gravity of the situation when she was arraigned four days after the tragedy. I watched her smile and gab with her sister in the courtroom gallery as though she were facing a traffic fine instead of prison term.
Such aloofness is on display in American courtrooms every day, particularly by women whom research and anecdotal evidence suggest are disproportionately involved in the trafficking of firearms traced to crimes.
“It’s usually a girlfriend of a bad guy, or a family member who thinks they’re just helping out another family member by giving them a gun to protect themselves on the street,” said Scott Heagney, the head agent at the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives Rochester field office. “These are good people, usually, who have no criminal record.”
Of course, some of them are callous and calculating.
But nearly all of them are naive, said Curtis Ellis, a spokesman for Boston-based Operation L.I.P.S.T.I.C.K. (Ladies Involved in Putting a Stop to Inner-city Killings), which educates women on straw purchases with ad slogans like, “His Crime, Your Time.”
“Very often they think it’s a paperwork thing and they don’t think it’s a big deal,” Ellis said. “They don’t realize that when they buy these guns, these are the guns that end up on the street shooting up their neighborhood.”
Straw purchasing — a transaction in which a person falsely asserts she is buying a gun for herself, when in fact she is buying it for someone else — is one of the main ways criminals prohibited from owning guns get access to them.
David Chipman, a retired ATF agent and national anti-gun violence advocate, said straw purchases are often viewed as a paperwork violation because the law portrays them as such.
“Most people believe, ‘Well, what harm is it?’ like they’re sneaking someone into an R-rated movie,” Chipman said. “It’s not viewed as morally reprehensible.
“The reality is this type of decision is morally reprehensible with total disregard for society,” he continued. “It’s like buying a case of Scotch for a 14-year-old.”
Just knowing that Spengler couldn’t legally own guns should have been enough for Nguyen to realize that no good could come from buying him any. For that, she is guilty and deserves to be imprisoned.
Federal law allows for 10 years and a $250,000 fine for each straw purchase, but sentencing guidelines recommend just two years.
By that measure, and judicial precedent, the eight years given to Nguyen is harsh. Countless straw purchasers have gotten far less time.
But maybe that leniency has been part of the problem: Too many straw purchasers get too little time for their crime.
The severity of Nguyen’s sentence should be a clarion call to the clueless here and beyond.
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