The state has a storied history of passing laws that protect firearm owners and prop up gun manufacturers amid a growing national conversation about mass shootings and gun violence.
Last fall, Antonio Rossello joined a round of poker being held at an eggshell-colored house with a generously grassy front yard in Miami Gardens, Florida. At one point during the card game, the 41-year-old welder befriended another player and pitched his side-business selling guns, according to a criminal complaint filed in Miami federal court.
Rossello pulled out a fully automatic STEN machine gun and offered to sell the weapon to the man, the complaint says. Over half a century ago, British-made STENs were used to mow down Nazis and communist soldiers during World War II and the Korean War, respectively. Rossello showed the player a photo on his cell phone of a pistol with a silencer and said he had other guns in his inventory, along with hand grenades and C-4 explosives, the criminal complaint alleges.
The prospective customer turned out to be a confidential informant who helped special agents from the the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms (ATF) set up four undercover purchases from Rossello. Between October 29 of last year and this past January 8, Rossello sold the snitch three STENs, one "untraceable" pistol, and more than a hundred rounds of ammunition, including bullets that could pierce protective vests, the complaint states.
The transactions netted Rossello just $7,300.
On January 28, Rossello was charged with several felony counts: unlicensed firearms dealing, possession of a machine gun, possession of an unregistered firearm, unlawful transfer of a firearm, and unlawful making of a firearm. His bust was the result of an initiative launched by the the US attorney's office in southern Florida way back in 2011. But the case against Rossello provides a rare look into the murky world of private gun sales in Florida, a state with a storied history of passing laws that protect firearm owners and prop up gun manufacturers amid a growing national conversation about mass shootings and gun violence.
"This case is representative of why Obama issued his executive action" in January, says Lindsay Nichols, senior attorney for the Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence. "Because the definition of a person engaging the business of selling firearms is not that clear, prosecutors are often reluctant to pursue such cases."
Obama's action clarifies that anyone in the gun selling business, whether from a store, a gun show, or on the internet, must conduct background checks. In addition, the president made it clear that a person can be considered an unlicensed firearms dealer even if he or she just sells one or two guns, according to Andrew Patrick, a spokesman for Washington, DC's Coalition to Stop Gun Violence.
"Let's say there is a farmer's market where people sell guns," Patrick explains. "If they take credit cards and have business cards, then it is obviously more than just a hobby. Before the executive action, the definition of a private seller was kind of vague."
Prosecutors have historically had a tough time convicting illegal gun dealers because federal law allows a person who occasionally sells, exchanges, and purchases firearms for the enhancement of a personal collection or for a hobby to do so without a federal license, according to Nichols. "Law enforcement officers have to pose as buyers or use confidential informants to gauge if a person is really selling guns as a business and not a hobby," she says. "One sale is rarely enough to bring a case against a person."
Mark Kleiman, professor emeritus of public policy at the UCLA School of Public Affairs, says clarifying the definition of a private seller engaged in the gun business is important because a third of all gun sales in the US are not conducted by licensed dealers. But Kleiman believes prosecutors already have a strong case against Rossello—even if Obama had not passed his executive order.
"There is no need to change the law to deal with him," Kleiman tells me after reviewing the criminal complaint. "This guy was straight up gun trafficking."
According to the complaint, Rossello sold the confidential informant the four guns at three locations: the poker house, a service plaza on the Florida Turnpike, and the welder's own home in Lake Worth. When ATF agents and police officers from the Palm Beach County Sheriff's Office executed a search warrant at Rossello's place on January 28, they confiscated another fully automatic machine gun.
In a video-recorded interview with investigators the same day, Rossello admitted to selling the firearms to the snitch and that the STEN machine guns had been manufactured by his boss's son, Todd Vanlinda. Rossello added that he and Vanlinda test-fired a STEN in a back area of the Lake Worth headquarters of Vanlinda Iron Works, where he was employed, according to the complaint. He also told investigators he'd seen kits for building firearms inside a concrete shed at Vanlinda's house.
Vanlinda was arrested later that same day and charged with possession of a machine gun and possession of an unregistered firearm. During a search of his house, agents confiscated a MP-40 fully automatic machine gun that was in a safe on the property's patio.
During a recent visit to the Lake Worth headquarters of Vanlinda Iron Works, a snowy-haired man with a Southern accent who would not identify himself declined comment. "[Rossello] doesn't work here," the man said. "Now you have to leave." Attempts to speak to the welder's family were also unsuccessful: A woman who answered the door at Rossello's home declined comment.
Both men are in federal custody pending trial.
In Rossello's case, the feds may have an especially easy road to conviction because he was selling machine guns, which has been prohibited under federal law since 1934. (Last month, the feds slapped Rossello with 13 additional firearms felony violations.) Nichols also notes that private sellers like Rossello take advantage of Florida being one of 18 states that have not closed the so-called "gun-show loophole," allowing private gun sales to take place just about anywhere—without a required background check. (Obama's January executive order encourages private sellers to come out from the shadows, but it is unlikely to change the game, experts say.)
Some Florida counties, like Pinellas, Hillsborough, and Hernando, have passed local laws requiring background checks for private sales at gun shows and exhibitions—but not for transactions conducted online, at someone's home, or in a parking lot. The loophole allows convicted felons and mentally unstable individuals to purchase guns illegally, advocates like Nichols believe. "It enables dangerous people to get guns," she tells me. "States that have closed the loophole have experienced lower rates of homicides and suicides."
Of course, Florida's Second Amendment defenders emphatically disagree. Sean Caranna, executive director of Florida Carry—a nonprofit that "works tirelessly toward repealing and striking down ill-conceived gun control laws"—says there's no ambiguity that Rossello was an illegal arms dealer after he read the complaint. "If the allegations are true, then this is a bad guy who was doing bad things," Caranna says in an interview. "But does that mean all private sellers should be registering their sales and conducting background checks? Absolutely not."
Caranna notes Florida lawmakers passed legislation in 2011 making it a felony for anyone, including law enforcement officials, to maintain a registry of firearms when guns change hands. "These lists can be used by unscrupulous people to target gun owners and steal their firearms," Caranna says. "And it's also meant to stop law enforcement officials from abusing their power by going around collecting firearms from gun owners."
Gun control advocates counter that holding private sellers to the same standards as licensed gun dealers will do more to prevent people who would cause harm from buying firearms.
"Private sales make it incredibly easy for those [who] are ineligible to buy guns—whether a convicted felon or a person on a terrorist watch list—to get them," says Patrick of the Coalition to Stop Gun Violence. "Gun trafficking 101 is to buy a bunch a guns through private sales in a state with weak gun laws."
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