In May, Sarah Jean Elwood bought 47 guns.

Elwood is not a hunter or collector. The 33-year-old from Crystal was living in her car. She and her fiancé, Jeffrey Paul Jackson, were purchasing firearms from shops around the Twin Cities and selling them on the illegal market, federal prosecutors say.

By the end of the month, three of the guns had already been confiscated by police in connection with shooting investigations, according to an affidavit underlying the felony federal charges.

As gun crimes have surged in the Twin Cities over the past year, schemes like this, known as "straw purchasing," play a crucial role in how illegal firearms reach the streets, said Jeff Reed, assistant special agent in charge of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives' St. Paul field office.

No one knows how many illegal guns come from straw purchasers, but local ATF agents are seeing an increase in these cases in tandem with the crime wave, said Reed.

Federal prosecutors in Minnesota are currently investi­gating four straw purchasers, in addition to Elwood, responsible for collectively putting more than 100 guns on the streets, said Minnesota Assistant U.S. Attorney Amber Brennan, deputy chief of the firearms and violent crime section.

"These are the guns that are making it out onto the streets, and they're killing people," said Brennan.

In a typical straw purchase scenario, the buyer has no felony conviction or other factor disqualifying them from owning a firearm. But they are really buying it for someone else, who's either legally ineligible or doesn't want any paper trail to the weapon.

Straw purchases are illegal under Minnesota and federal law, but investigators say they can be difficult to identify while balancing the rights of legal gun owners.

Elwood and Jackson evaded suspicion for months by shopping at different gun stores, according to court documents. On May 27, law enforcement confiscated a gun from a suspect in a shooting earlier in the month. The ATF discovered Elwood had bought the firearm 15 days earlier.

So the agents started taking a closer look at what else she was buying.

Feeding the streets

Last year, 553 people were struck by gunfire in Minneapolis, the most in 15 years. Ending a decadeslong decline in violent crime, the city saw 84 homicides in 2020 — almost all of which involved guns — the highest since the mid-1990s, according to Star Tribune data. Homicides in St. Paul tied the historic highest record.

The first half of this year has offered little reason for optimism. As the summer begins, Minneapolis has already seen 40 homicides, including cases of stray bullets that fatally wounded young children. Federal prosecutors, along with the ATF and FBI, are pooling resources with police to curb the violence and target illegal gun owners.

The Elwood case highlights a common problem for law enforcement when it comes to straw purchases: Investigators didn't discover the sale occurred until they recovered the gun on the street.

Those who study gun violence trends in America have looked at ways to stop straw purchases. Gun legislation, such as requiring owners to promptly report a stolen gun, can make it more difficult for straw buyers to plead ignorance when their weapons turn up in a shooting, said Daniel Webster, director of the Johns Hopkins Center for Gun Violence Prevention and Policy at the Bloomberg School of Public Health.

Webster said he's also seen positive trends in states that required prospective handgun owners to apply for a license, which mandates the person be fingerprinted, vetted by law enforcement and required to take a gun safety course.

One study Webster helped conduct found the number of guns bought in Maryland and recovered from within a year from a person other than the buyer — one indicator of a likely straw purchase — declined by 82% after the state passed laws designed to deter the illegal gun trade, including licensing. In a survey of people on probation and parole, 40% of respondents said the law made it more difficult to obtain a gun, and 34% said it was harder to find a straw buyer. And gun-related homicides and suicides dropped. On the flip side, when Missouri repealed its permit-to-purchase law in 2007, firearm homicides and suicides went up.

"I think the evidence is pretty strong that laws do matter," Webster said.

Yet introducing new gun legislation is certain to run into political resistance, and gun rights advocates say these restrictions risk penalizing legal owners as well.

In 2015, Minnesota instituted a new law making straw purchasing a gross misdemeanor crime. One of the authors, Sen. Ron Latz, DFL-St. Louis Park, said he doesn't believe there is political will at the Capitol to go further.

Rep. Jeremy Munson, R-Lake Crystal, said he believes licensure law is the wrong path for Minnesota.

"I would never support a bill like that, because that is a gun registry," said Munson. "Every gun registry in history has been followed by mass gun confiscation. Once the government knows where the guns are, then they can start taking them away."

Munson said Minnesota does need to take guns out of the hands of criminals, but he worries some of the state's restrictions already go too far, such as a prohibiting gun ownership for residents on the medical marijuana registry. This year, Munson introduced the Minnesota Anti-Red Flag Act, a bill that would preempt any law or ordinance that allows law enforcement or family to petition a court to temporarily remove firearms from a person who poses a risk of harm to self or others.

Pressuring the sellers

Another avenue of cutting down straw purchases is to focus on the sellers, said Garen Wintemute, an emergency physician who studies guns as director of the Violence Prevention Research Program at University of California, Davis.

Wintemute said data show certain shops sell a disproportionately high share of guns that end up on the streets.

"There are retailers who will clearly understand that they are involved in a straw purchase and will sell the guns anyway," he said.

Law enforcement paying special attention to these sellers can pressure them to be more vigilant, he said.

Munson believes this strategy may also have unintended consequences. He said asking gun dealers to crack down could lead to racial profiling of legal buyers.

It was a vigilant dealer who helped the ATF catch Elwood.

On May 29, Elwood called Bill's Gun Shop and Range in Circle Pines asking if they had any Glocks, according to court documents. The employee said they did not, and when Elwood showed up to buy two other guns, the employee grew suspicious and called the ATF.

Agents were already on Elwood's trail from confiscating the gun a day earlier. They staked out the store and arrested Elwood the next day when she came to pick up the guns, according to charges.

In an interview with the ATF, Elwood said she'd been buying guns almost daily for the past month or two and selling them, usually for $100 profit per gun, according to court documents. She and Jackson needed the money since she lost her job in March 2020, lost her apartment and her mother was diagnosed with cancer, she told investigators, the court records said.

Jackson is prohibited from buying guns in Minnesota, so he'd arrange the deals, get money up front and Elwood would make the purchase, she said, according to court documents. The ATF has traced 56 guns straw-purchased by Elwood since last August, according to court documents.

She and Jackson sold most of them to Geryiell Lamont Walker, a person she knew as "Man-Man." Elwood said she knew Walker was reselling the guns, but she didn't know to whom.

Walker has also been charged with a federal felony in a straw-purchasing scheme. According to court documents, he first told police he only sold the guns to people for protection, "but then he admitted that he knew the firearms were being utilized for criminal acts and he 'did not care' what they were being used for."

Jackson and Walker are being held in Anoka County jail. Elwood was released June 11.

Andy Mannix • 612-673-4036