It didn't take long for undercover police officers working a gun show at the state fairgrounds to spot Damien Laster.
The prominent neck tattoos popular among former prison inmates gave him away.
Officers watched as Laster, 33, of Oklahoma City, a suspected drug trafficker with convictions for assault and battery and drug possession, paid cash for 310 rounds of .40 caliber ammunition and three 100-round magazines, along with several large military-style duffel bags.
A vendor later told police Laster said he needed “large bags to carry numerous firearms,” court records show.
The officers observed Laster and another man walking from table to table handling firearms. At one stop, Laster picked up an AR-15 assault rifle and inserted one of the magazines.
He then tried to buy two of the rifles but was thwarted by a seller who refused to do business with Laster because of his criminal backgrounds.
“That's OK,” Laster boldly told the vendor. “I'll have my girlfriend come back and buy them,” police reported in a probable cause affidavit.
‘Lots of loopholes'
While Laster was prevented from buying the high-powered assault rifles, others convicted of crimes continue to target gun shows because of less-restrictive policies. Private sellers, many of whom frequent such shows, are allowed to sell their firearms without requiring background checks.
“I think everybody knows it's easier to buy guns at a gun show,” Oklahoma City police Capt. Dexter Nelson said. “There are lots of loopholes and they make people a lot of money.”
Sales of that type, though, would be changed under proposals announced earlier this year by President Barack Obama.
The president called on Congress to pass universal background checks and bans on military-style assault weapons and high-capacity ammunition magazines.
Legislators are considering a compromise on expanding background checks on firearms to include gun shows and Internet sales.
“We get people at every gun show asking us if we do background checks,” said Jason Davis of C&J Sporting Goods in Bethany. “We lose a lot of sales because people don't want that.”
Last year, a gang member with prior felony convictions paid cash for two semi-automatic pistols and ammunition from an Oklahoma City gun show without having to submit to a background check.
Jordan Abe Chavira was arrested near the gun show and later pleaded guilty in Oklahoma City federal court to unlawful possession of firearms. In January, a judge sentenced Chavira to federal prison for 46 months.
Chavira was overheard saying to the gun dealer, “No paperwork, right?”
The dealer said paperwork was required because he was a federal firearms licensee. Chavira said, “Never mind,” and walked away, according to police records.
Police presence helps
Despite the notion that gun shows are an easy mark for felons looking to purchase firearms, Davis estimates that 95 percent of dealers carry a Federal Firearms License that requires a background check.
“The sad reality of it is if somebody wants a firearm they're going to get it and they're going to do so illegally,” Davis said. “Chances are they're not going to go to a gun show.”
An increased law enforcement presence is making it more difficult for felons to buy guns at gun shows, Davis said.
“At one time, absolutely, if you walked into a gun show you could have walked in and bought a gun, no questions asked,” he said. “Now you're being watched.”
Nelson, a police department spokesman, declined to elaborate on the department's tactical strategies for catching prohibited buyers who slip through the cracks.
Oklahoma City police stopped Laster and associate Aaron Eyob once they left State Fair Park, records show. Laster, pulled over for making an improper right turn, consented to a search of his trunk, where officers found the ammunition and magazines.
Men face charges
Both men were arrested and charged in Oklahoma County District Court with possession of a firearm and possession of marijuana with intent to distribute. Police seized nearly $17,000 in cash from Eyob, who claimed he was going to buy a house, according to the probable cause affidavit.
The money was later returned after Eyob provided proof he inherited it, police reported.
Laster also is facing a federal charge after he was indicted by a grand jury in Oklahoma City for possessing ammunition.
“Anybody whose been convicted of a felony, under federal law, is prohibited from owning firearms or ammunition,” said Bob Troester, spokesman for the U.S. attorney's office in Oklahoma City. “We are aggressively pursuing (these types of cases).”
Federal prosecutors called Laster a “career criminal” who has no right to possess guns or ammunition. Laster faces up to life in prison if convicted because of his extensive felony record.