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KPD warns of 'straw purchases' at gun shows

Police said criminals and gang members use gun shows to purchase guns for people who can't have them, or purchase guns when it's illegal for them to have.

KNOXVILLE, Tenn. — In late April, federal prosecutors submitted a criminal complaint against Michael Harris, a man who was caught buying several guns at a gun show in Knoxville. The affidavit said Harris wore a red hat and red shorts, the color of the Bloods street gang. 

Court documents said agents with the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives worked with the Knoxville Police Department before Harris was arrested. They said they watched him buy guns and use FaceTime to show guns to others. They said it was a sign he was buying guns for others. 

The complaint said Harris previously had been convicted of a felony and was prohibited from owning weapons. 

However, Harris admitted to investigators, according to the affidavit, that he bought those weapons from sellers who "did not make him fill out paperwork or ask for identification."  They're called "straw purchases," according to authorities.

At gun shows, licensed dealers are required to do background checks on people purchasing guns. However, in Tennessee, private citizens are allowed to sell guns without verifying the buyer's criminal history. 

"As a private citizen, you can sell a firearm to whomever you want," said Joshua Shaffer, the lieutenant in charge of policing organized crime at KPD. 

Shaffer said KPD sees "prohibited persons" and people trying to buy guns for other people at gun shows. 

"People will approach other attendees, offering them cash money to go in and buy a gun for them," Shaffer said. "We want to try to prevent criminals from getting guns." 

Shaffer said for people making private sales of guns, there are easy questions to ask to make sure guns aren't being sold to someone who isn't legally allowed to have one: 

  • Who are you buying the gun for?
  • Ask them to show ID
  • Are you a convicted felon? A prohibited person? 

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