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Gun ruling favors couple
By LARRY DOUGHERTY
© St. Petersburg Times, published June 10, 2000
TAMPA -- The gun-dealing couple who sold a 9mm firearm used in a hotel shooting that left five people dead are innocent of keeping improper records of the transaction, a federal judge ruled Friday.
U.S. District Judge Susan Bucklew said she doubted Sonia and James "Ernie" Simms intentionally omitted information from a federal form.
"If this were an administrative hearing or a civil case, I might rule differently," Bucklew said. "The burden is higher here."
Mrs. Simms reached over to pat her husband's back as Bucklew announced her verdict.
Each of the seven misdemeanor counts they faced carried up to a year in prison.
The Simmses already relinquished their gun dealer's licenses. They said little beyond expressing relief as they left the courthouse. "We appreciate your attention," said James Simms, 44, as he exhaled, his eyes wide.
In testimony Thursday, both husband and wife said they had no intention of breaking the law when Mrs. Simms, 31, sold a 9mm Lorcin, for a $15 profit, to Silvio Izquierdo-Leyva in January 1999.
They said they were sorry to learn Izquierdo is accused of using the pistol and another firearm to kill five people in shootings that began at the Radisson Bay Harbor Hotel Dec. 30 and ended in a car-jacking in West Tampa.
After the verdict, the couple's defense attorney, Mike Benito, said the only reason his clients were prosecuted was because of publicity surrounding the shootings.
A "technicality involving the form" led his clients to being paraded in handcuffs before TV cameras, Benito said.
"This whole thing could have been handled better -- perhaps with a warning" from the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms, Benito said.
Prosecutors defended the charges.
"Firearms dealers need to be sent a message you're not selling cotton balls," said federal prosecutor Colleen D. Murphy. "If you are going to sell guns, you need to do it very, very carefully."
The Simmses were charged with failing to document that Izquierdo and six other aliens who had bought handguns from them had furnished proof of residence for the preceding 90 days.
Such proof is typically offered through utility bills or apartment leases. The Simmses had properly documented the residency of 79 other aliens who purchased firearms from them, records showed.
In testimony, the couple said their failure to fill out the relevant parts of the form was purely a mistake. Had they wanted to cheat, they testified, they would have made up information for the form.
The couple had operated "Big E's Guns & Gold" on weekends at the Floriland Flea Market on North Florida Avenue. They estimated they sold at least 600 firearms in two years.
Bucklew noted the Simmses were experienced with federal firearm documentation rules, since they had worked at a pawn shop before opening their own shop.
Still, she had reasonable doubts about the prosecutor's claim the couple intentionally omitted the residency information to guarantee additional sales.
-- Larry Dougherty can be reached at (813) 226-3337 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
© St. Petersburg Times. All rights reserved.