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July 25, 2023

City of Philadelphia sues three gun shops for illegally selling firearms

Straw purchases, in which a customer buys a gun for someone who can't access them, have allegedly occurred at Frank's Gun Shop, Delia's Gun Shop and Tanner's Sports Center

Courts Gun Violence
Gun Shop Lawsuit Thom Carroll/For PhillyVoice

Philadelphia is suing Frank's Gun Shop, Delia's Gun Shop and Tanner's Sports Center for allegedly engaging in straw purchases that have helped fuel the city's gun violence crisis.

Philadelphia is "awash" with illegally obtained firearms that have fueled the city's gun violence crisis, according to a lawsuit filed by city leaders on Tuesday. 

The lawsuit names Frank's Gun Shop in Holmesburg, Delia's Gun Shop in Wissinoming and Tanner's Sports Center in Bucks County as three shops that have allegedly engaged in "reckless" straw purchase transactions, which occur when a buyer purchases guns with the intention of illegally transferring them to someone who is unable or unwilling to purchase a gun themselves.

At least 158 guns were sold to at least 38 straw purchasers at these shops between 2018 and 2022, the lawsuit claims, though the true number of straw purchases is much higher. The vendors are the source of 1,300 guns recovered from Philadelphia crime scenes between 2015 and 2019, the last year that such data was publicly available. Officials believe that the gun shops proceeded with straw purchases despite "unmistakable indicators" of illegal activity, including high-volume purchases of duplicate guns and false identification given to store clerks. 

Guns sold at each of the shops have allegedly been used in homicides and non-fatal shootings and continue to be recovered in connection with home invasions, narcotics distribution, car thefts and robberies. The lawsuit claims that the guns are often found in the possession of minors, those with prior felony charges and people who are prohibited from buying or owning a gun. 

"The scourge of gun violence continues to plague our city, and our stakeholders must take decisive action to address this pressing issue," said Police Commissioner Danielle Outlaw. "The announcement of the lawsuit against these gun shops underscores our commitment to combating illegal firearms and the devastating consequences they bring. Straw purchasing transactions not only violate state and federal laws, but they also pose a significant burden on law enforcement's efforts to keep our communities safe. We stand firm in our resolve to hold accountable those who enable the flow of illegal weapons into the wrong hands." 

The city and its partners in the lawsuit are aiming to stop the vendors from engaging in straw purchases and require them to add written policies to prevent future straw purchases. Frank's, Delia's and Tanner's may also pay damages for the harms caused by Philly's gun violence.

Frank's Gun Shop and Tanner's Sports Center declined to comment on the lawsuit. Delia's Gun Shop did not immediately respond to an inquiry from PhillyVoice.

"Gun dealers have a legal responsibility to not ignore suspicious behaviors that indicate illegal gun trafficking or straw purchasing," said Alla Lefkowitz, senior director of affirmative litigation for Everytown Law, which is assisting the case. "By diverting guns into the illegal secondary market through obvious straw purchasers, Delia's, Frank's, and Tanner's have fueled the city's gun violence epidemic and put the lives of Philadelphia's children and families on the line." 

There have been at least 1,800 homicides in Philly since January 2020, primarily by gun violence, police data shows. Straw-purchased and privately made firearms are two of the most commonly used guns in those instances, officials said earlier this month. Rates of gun violence have sharply increased in recent years, with 65% of residents reporting hearing gunshots in their neighborhood last year.

Straw purchasing is illegal under federal and state law. Pennsylvania's law against straw purchasing was amended in 2012 after Plymouth Township police officer Bradley Fox was killed during a traffic stop with a straw-purchased gun wielded by a convicted felon; penalties were stiffened for licensed gun stores who sell to suspected straw purchasers. 

While there are more than 350 licensed gun dealers in Philly and its neighboring counties, 10 of them have collectively supplied more than a third of the guns recovered by city police between 2015 and 2019. A majority of those guns were recovered at a crime scene shortly after their purchase, indicating that purchasers intended to resell these guns for criminal use, the lawsuit claims. 

"By allowing straw purchasers to buy guns in their stores, the defendants are allowing high risk individuals who are barred by state law from buying or owning guns to gain easy access to guns they use to commit violent crimes," said Dr. Cheryl Bettigole, the city's health commissioner. "We know how to prevent many acts of gun violence. We need to keep guns out of the hands of people with a history of violent acts, particularly those with a history of firearm offenses. By holding those few store owners who persistently fail to enforce straw purchasing laws accountable, we can begin to address the trauma, deaths, and disability they are helping to create." 

This is the second lawsuit filed by Philadelphia officials recently as part of its ongoing effort to address gun violence. Earlier this month, the city sued two ghost gun manufacturers, Polymer80 Inc. and JSD Supply, for allegedly having "perpetuated the gun violence crisis and threatened the public's right to health and safety by marketing, selling, and dispersing unserialized ghost gun kits into Philadelphia." 

The city wants those manufacturers to pay damages for the harm they have caused with their kits, which do not require background checks. Ghost guns, which are largely untraceable, are often confiscated by police following crimes.