America can add one more lingering effect of the COVID-19 pandemic. Easy access to government funds fueled fraudulent claims that heated up the illicit black market of firearms, especially by criminal gangs and illegal drug networks. In other words, it wasn’t the lawful sale of a record number of firearms in 2020 and 2021 that was responsible for crime. It was government tax dollar giveaways without guardrails that criminals co-opted.
The low threshold to claim COVID-19 relief money from the federal government made it all too easy for criminal gangs like the Traveling Vice Lords and the Wild 100s to tap into free money. That money was used for crimes of illegal firearm straw purchases and even a murder-for-hire plot.
Gun control groups blamed the firearm industry for the rising rates of violent crime during and following the COVID-19 pandemic. The truth is clearer now. A lack of oversight to ensure COVID relief funds weren’t fraudulently obtained is a contributing factor, along with soft-on-crime policies and elected officials who refuse to jail criminals.
The Chicago Sun Times published the exposé of how the federal government’s plan to rescue the economy from collapse was a catalyst for skyrocketing black market gun profits. An Inspector General’s report from the Small Business Administration that oversaw the Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) and Economic Injury Disaster loan estimated that at least 17 percent of the $1.2 trillion handed out was obtained by fraud. That’s $204 billion.
“We’ve repeatedly seen a connection between violent crime, violent criminal street gangs and the COVID fraud space throughout the country,” says Michael C. Galdo, director of COVID-19 fraud enforcement for the Justice Department, in the Chicago Sun Times report.
Criminal gangs figured out how to game the system and defrauded the government of millions of dollars that were used to buy illicitly-traded guns and drugs. Even criminals behind bars got in on the act. Government estimates pegged the figure at no less than $250,000 of COVID-unemployment insurance benefits went to federal inmates.
Federal agents said the price of illegally-sold guns soared. Criminals conspired to lie on PPP applications and applied for loans for businesses that didn’t exist. They used the funds, that in most cases didn’t need to be repaid, to buy guns on the black market from other gangs, and in some cases, to entice illegal straw purchasers.
Jeffery Straus is a Chicago supervisory special agent with U.S. Homeland Security Investigations. He told the Sun Times that “street GLOCKs” increased in price form roughly $700 to over $1,000. If they had extended magazines, which are illegal in Illinois, the price went up. If they were illegally converted to an automatic firearm, they demanded even more money.
“That money somehow contributed to the rest of the violence in the city with drug-trafficking and the gun trade and all that stuff,” Strauss said.
Murder For Hire
One Wisconsin gang, the Wild 100s, used the money for more than just drugs and illegally-gotten guns. They used it for murder. Gang members got fraudulent unemployment payments from California and other states that were used to solicit the murder of an individual in Milwaukee. The murderer that carried out the killing of another gang leader’s relative, but a friend was murdered instead. The murderer was paid $10,000 from fraudulently-claimed COVID funds. That trial is still pending.
The easy-money schemes roped others in, too. Brandon Miller was an active-duty soldier who is accused of illegally straw purchasing firearms for Chicago gangs. At least one of those illegally-obtained guns was used in a mass shooting.
This is all, of course, counter to the prevailing narrative that gun control groups and politicians were selling as crime rates rose unabated. They pointed the finger at the firearm industry, ignoring that firearms are only sold after a Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) Form 4473 is completed and signed and an FBI National Instant Criminal Background Check System (NICS) verification is run.
Those lying on the forms to buy guns for those who can’t are committing felonies, which the firearm industry warns the public through the Don’t Lie for the Other Guy program, which partners with the Justice Department and ATF.
President Joe Biden was the grand marshal for the parade of gun control advocates blaming crime on the firearm industry, along with Attorney General Merrick Garland. The culprit was much closer to home. Government programs made it too easy to fraudulently claim taxpayer dollars that fueled crime. Meanwhile, the Biden administration refused to acknowledge that criminals would game the system to steal money and commit even more crime.
“They’re in a life of crime,” Galdo told the Sun Times. “They are repeat offenders who are committing crimes on a regular basis. And now we’re essentially giving them public money to fund what they’re going to do. Anytime we have that connection, that should be particularly troubling to people.”
Mark Oliva is Managing Director of Public Affairs for NSSF, The Firearm Industry Trade Association.