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How Loganville terrorism suspect could have armed himself
The man accused of planning to kill his ex-girlfriend and as many state troopers as he could in Loganville made a statement that, given the current political debates involving gun laws, could turn some heads.
“When I’m out I’m gonna buy a gun as easily as you can go to the corner store and buy milk,” Howard Timothy Cofflin Jr. told his mother in a recorded call from jail in December, according to charging documents filed Wednesday.
According to authorities, that's an exaggeration, because, thanks to previous charges and a current protection-from-abuse (PFA) order, he is not allowed to buy a gun. But there are ways in which Cofflin, who used to live in Loganville and who’s since been charged with multiple counts of attempted murder and terrorism, could have bought a firearm without a seller being legally responsible.
According to the Justice Department’s Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF), a private, non-licensed seller doesn’t have to ask if the buyer isn’t allowed to buy a gun, and is free to sell the person a gun “as long as he or she does not know or have reasonable cause to believe the person is prohibited from receiving or possessing firearms under Federal law.”
That means in this case, Cofflin would be breaking the law by buying the gun, of course, but, unless Cofflin told the seller something that let the person know that was the case or the person somehow knew Cofflin’s criminal background or allegedly murderous intent, the seller would have done absolutely nothing wrong in the eyes of the law, confirmed Special Agent Steven Bartholomew, a spokesman based out of the ATF’s Philadelphia offices.
Cofflin’s case comes while the ever-fervent debate about gun laws is prominently in the headlines. On Tuesday, President Barack Obama unveiled a plan to use executive actions to tighten control and enforcement of firearms in the United States.
The ATF has issued updated guidelines that state the government should deem anyone “in the business” of selling guns to be a dealer, regardless of where he or she sells the guns. That’s done on a case-by-case basis, with the government considering factors including how many guns a person sells, how frequently and whether those guns are sold for a profit. The goal was to make sure regular sellers are registered and thus have to conduct background checks with every purchase. Pennsylvania law was already much in line with that standard.
Cofflin: In a news conference Wednesday morning, police alleged Cofflin’s plan was to kill his ex-girlfriend and take over her house, barricade himself in it and then kill as many state troopers as he could using guns and explosives made from propane tanks. Cofflin, 56, was angry about a protection-from-abuse order against him his ex had sought and been granted in August, police say, and at state police for arresting him when he allegedly violated it.
Cofflin most recently had been living in Dundalk, Maryland, with his mother, after living in Loganville for years with his then-girlfriend. Thanks to previous convictions and the PFA, he wasn’t able to pass a background check to buy a gun, police say. So he’d drawn on both the Internet and his former engineering training to buy individual parts online and put them together into what had almost become a functional AR-15 rifle, police say.
By the time he was arrested Oct. 23 in Dundalk, he only needed a little more work to finish it, according to police. He just had to do some milling work on the lower receiver of the gun, according to Trooper Rob Hicks, a state police spokesman.
“Basically he had everything he needed to put it together,” according to Cpl. John Wachter, a spokesman for Baltimore County Police, who served the warrant on the Dundalk home and his car, where they found and confiscated the parts, tools and a diagram of how to finish up the gun.
He told police he’d bought many of the parts at a gun show in Harrisburg during the fall, according to charging documents filed in Maryland after the search.
It’s unclear where he bought the receiver, the one part that still needed work; that’s the part was that’s hardest to get, Bartholomew said. It houses the trigger and other key mechanisms, and is the only part of the gun that’s subject to federal restrictions.
“That’s what’s considered a firearm under federal law,” the special agent said. The other pieces such as the barrel and stock are just considered parts, and are generally unregulated.
“(The receiver has) the working mechanisms of a firearm … which is essential for putting a firearm together,” Bartholomew said.
In order to buy one of those legally from someone out of state, you have to order it through a federally licensed seller, which is often acting as a broker between two people, according to Bartholomew. After all the paperwork is filled out and a background check approved, the buyer can get the gun, which the seller will have had mailed from a licensed dealer near the seller to one near the buyer, he said.
In state, the restrictions are looser; you can buy one from an unlicensed seller without going through a background check, Bartholomew said.
Another option would be to take to the black market: the illicit weapons trade that exists both on and off the internet, through which Cofflin could have tried to buy the receiver, Bartholomew said.
"Ensur(ing) that guns aren’t diverted from the lawful market to the black market” is a main focus of the ATF, he said.
Police say Cofflin also alluded to using his machinist background to try and build his own receiver from scratch; documents say he was looking forward to reuniting with the tools he believed might allow him to do that after he took over his former home — where his ex-girlfriend still lived — by force.
Charges: Cofflin is currently in the Baltimore County Detention Center; he was charged with firearm offenses after an Oct. 23 search of his mother’s home on Westfield Road in Dundalk, documents state. Authorities say he’ll remain behind bars during the process to extradite him to York County.
In York County, he’s charged with two counts of attempted first-degree murder, one count of attempted first-degree murder of a law enforcement officer, two first-degree felony counts of terrorism and three of aggravated assault and one misdemeanor count each of making terroristic threats and threatening to use weapons of mass destruction.
In total, Cofflin could be looking at a sentence as long as 120 years behind bars, according to authorities.
— Reach Sean Cotter at firstname.lastname@example.org.