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July 13, 2009

McNair Shooting Puts Spotlight on Unregulated Gun Sales

On July 4, former National Football League quarterback Steve McNair was asleep on a couch in his condominium in Nashville, Tennessee, when his life was abruptly taken. 20 year-old Sahel Kazemi—a woman that McNair was having an extramarital affair with—shot him four times at close range with a semiautomatic handgun, killing him. She then sat next to him on the couch and fired one shot into her temple, taking her own life.

Nashville Police report that Kazemi’s life was “spinning out of control” in the days before the shooting. Kazemi’s family has said she believed McNair was in the process of leaving his wife and four sons when they met at her job at Dave & Buster’s several months ago. No divorce papers were ever filed by the McNairs, however. Additionally, Kazemi saw McNair with another woman days before the shooting and became convinced he was seeing her. Kazemi was also concerned about making rent and car payments and had told friends and associates she “was going to end it all.”

Another warning sign came in the early morning hours of July 2, when Kazemi was arrested on a driving under the influence (DUI) charge while driving 54 miles per hour in a 30-mph zone. McNair, who was in the car with her at the time, was not arrested or charged. He bailed Kazemi out of jail the same day.

Hours later, Kazemi purchased the handgun she would use to kill McNair and herself. She did not purchase the handgun at a gun store. Under federal law, the minimum age to purchase a handgun from a federally licensed gun dealer (FFL) is 21. Being 20 years of age, Kazemi would have failed the required background check through the National Instant Criminal Background Check System (NICS).

Instead, she purchased a Bryco-Jennings 9mm handgun through a private sale from Adriam Gilliam, Jr., who she had previously met while trying to sell her car. On the evening of July 2—the same day she was bailed out of jail—Kazemi met Gilliam in the parking lot of Dave & Buster’s to complete the transaction. Because of a loophole in federal law created by the gun lobby, private individuals are permitted to sell guns without conducting background checks on purchasers or maintaining records of sale. Furthermore, private sellers, unlike FFLs, can sell handguns to persons between the ages of 18-20.

The sale by Gilliam was illegal, however, because he is prohibited under federal law from owning or purchasing firearms. In 1993, Gilliam was convicted in Florida of three counts of second-degree murder and attempted armed robbery and sentenced concurrently to 15 and 17 years in prison. Detectives traced the Bryco-Jennings pistol to a pawn shop, Household Pawn, in Nashville, where it was originally sold in 2002. The individual who originally purchased the handgun that year, who has not been identified by authorities, then sold it to Gilliam—a convicted felon—through an unregulated private sale a year and a half ago. The seller committed no crime; because he had no legal duty to perform a background check on Gilliam to verify his criminal history. The sale was cash and carry, $100 and no questions asked.

The death of Steve McNair is the latest in a series of gun-related incidents involving National Football League players. McNair’s involvement with guns and alcohol predated the July 4 tragedy. In 2003, he was arrested and charged with driving under the influence and carrying an illegal handgun. In 2007, he was charged with drunken driving again for letting his intoxicated brother-in-law drive his pickup truck. All the charges were later dropped, and McNair at some point obtained a permit to carry a concealed handgun in Tennessee (law enforcement authorities in Tennessee have no discretion and must issue a permit to anyone who passes a computerized background check).

The McNair shooting is the latest example of how unfettered access to firearms is prioritized over public safety in the United States. Multiple red flags indicated that Sahel Kazemi was a threat to herself and possibly to others. And yet weak federal laws allowed a convicted felon to obtain a handgun through an unregulated private sale; a firearm he would transfer to Kazemi without knowing anything about her; a firearm that she could not have legally purchased at a licensed gun store. Sadly, the Nashville community—and McNair admirers across the nation—are now grieving over a tragedy that was entirely preventable.

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