Does the punishment fit the crime?
Greenwood father imprisoned for dealing firearms without a license
Editor’s Note: In the wake of the Sandy Hook tragedy in December, gun control debate is once again at the forefront. Just days after the tragedy, a Greenwood man was imprisoned for dealing firearms without a license. Below is an account by his son, Christopher Piazza.
By Christopher Piazza
On Dec.18, 2012, an upstanding Greenwood father turned himself into a Federal Prison Camp in Manchester, Ky. Days later he spent his 53rd birthday and Christmas behind bars. Next year he will do the same. His 13-year-old daughter, for whom he a primary caretaker, is 284 miles away.
It started on Oct. 27, 2005 when Klinge was driving through Greenwood on his way home from the Children’s Museum with his daughter and her friends. A Greenwood Police Officer pulled him over claiming that there was a speeding reported, and proceeded to search his vehicle and confiscate a gun that was stored in the back from a recent gun show. The officer told Klinge that he or the A.T.F. would be back the next day to arrest Klinge for carrying an illegal weapon (OA93 Pistol). Klinge, a gun expert, strongly disagreed. The officer took the gun and towed Klinge’s truck due to a lost registration.
The next day, a local gun shop owner (whom the officer consulted) informed Klinge that the officer supposedly shot the weapon full-auto. Klinge claimed that impossible – that it was brand-new and unfired; he immediately reached out to Olympic Arms and spoke with a master gunsmith who confirmed that it was impossible for the gun to fire full-auto. The gunsmith called the officer, which led to the officer calling Klinge and asking him to pick up the weapon. Klinge refused to do so without his attorney. After that call, Klinge’s attorney spent 3 months trying to retrieve the gun; he was told it was “in a lab being tested.”
In March of 2006, Klinge was surprised by a warrant for his arrest. The brand-new unfired gun was supposedly altered, shooting in a full-auto, and in poor mechanical condition due to erratic firing. In late 2006, Klinge’s attorney demanded a return of the gun, the charges dropped, and Klinge’s record expunged. GPD agreed to this, but the gun was never returned. Klinge proceeded to file a lawsuit against the officer, for the gun and violation of his rights. Judge Larry J. McKinney dismissed the lawsuit.
Over the next 2 years, Klinge continued to deal gun parts and accessories at gun shows, most times working for and with law enforcement. At his own table he occasionally bought and sold guns in order to grow his collection – working towards his goal of using his personal collection as collateral to open a boutique gun shop. He had sold his successful Greenwood business many years ago to pursue his passion.
Meanwhile, A.T.F. was sending undercover agents to his table in attempts to get Klinge to participate in certain illegal transactions; Klinge never succumbed to such requests and refused to transact with undercover agents on multiple occasions. In his dealings, Klinge actually went above and beyond legal requirements. None of his sales have been linked to a crime and he was never given fair warning by A.T.F. regarding licensing concerns, as is customary.
On Dec.10, 2008, the A.T.F. executed a search warrant on Klinge’s home. During the search, a small bag of prescription and non-prescription steroids was found – all of it 10-12 years old and long ago expired. Klinge claimed the non-prescription steroids were left by a disgruntled friend many years ago. Rodriguez handcuffed Klinge for possession.
Klinge’s life savings, in the form of his personal gun collection that started at 12-yrs-old (almost 190 guns valuing over $200k), was confiscated. Left literally penniless, over the next 4 years he struggled to support himself and his daughter – he lost his vehicle and would lose his home.
4 years later, Klinge gave up. Facing inflated charges and not having resources to fight them, he pled guilty and gave up his life savings in reasonable hope of not receiving time.
On Oct. 30, 2012, despite numerous letters from respectable Greenwood and Indianapolis citizens (including a pro-temp judge), despite this being a first offense, and despite Klinge’s parental responsibilities, Judge Larry J. McKinney sentenced Klinge to 1 year and 8 months in federal prison, plus 3 years probation. Including the demeaning probation, Klinge will have paid with 9 years of his life and his life savings. He will be a felon in perpetuity, making it nearly impossible to find good employment, especially for a middle-aged man with Scheuermann’s disease (a debilitating spinal disorder). Does the punishment fit the alleged crime?
Klinge’s daughter, a Greenwood honor student and dedicated dancer, will be 15 when her dad comes home. She’s left without her best friend for an amount of time a young girl cannot fathom.
By the sentencing hearing, Klinge had found a good-paying job, was in the process of saving his home from foreclosure, and was finally able to take care of his family again. He had hope for a better life beyond the devastation of the preceding 4 years. He was ready to concede his life savings and goals if it meant protecting his freedom and staying home with his daughter.
In his final statement to the judge, Klinge took responsibility for his actions, and with tears in his eyes he spoke of his daughter: “And there is my daughter, who I have joint custody of. She is with me during the week and every other weekend. In addition to that, her mom is often out-of-state and out-of-country for work… She is the biggest part of my life. That was true before all of this. It has not changed and it will not change. I don’t know what she would do without me. And I don’t know what I would do without her… I’m just sorry she has had to go through this.” The statement was to no avail.
Questions: How much did the judge actually come to understand these gun shows – this gun collecting, and buying and selling that occurs every weekend – before he claimed that Donald Klinge “knew what he was doing every day”? What if the judge were incorrect in stating that Klinge knew he was breaking the law? What if Klinge knew exactly what he was doing? What if he was getting one table at each gun show and being careful about how much he sold until he could be a legitimate dealer? And what if his measurement of what was acceptable was based upon everything he saw around him? What if his reference to how the law worked – and what he based his actions upon – was absolute inaction against much larger quantity unlicensed dealers around him? And what does it mean that law enforcement actually employed him, befriended him, and would have never guessed that Donald Klinge would be under investigation by the A.T.F.? And does it matter that there were countless others around Donald Klinge doing exponentially more business selling guns than Klinge ever did, or ever planned to do, before being licensed? Maybe not, but that does not justify “making an example” of Klinge, which is exactly what was stated by the judge in the courtroom. The judge made clear that he didn’t expect to see Klinge in a courtroom again, and that Klinge had otherwise led an “exemplary” life, and that the sentencing was to “make an example” and out of “respect for the law.” Similar or more serious cases, many involving drugs, have resulted in no prison time (especially with first offenders). For example, in Oct. 2012, an Iowa man who sold over 800 guns during a four-year period (nearly 4 times what Klinge allegedly sold in the same time span), was given a fine and sentenced to 150 hours of community service and 3 years probation. He will not serve any prison time.
Klinge was far from the best target the A.T.F. could have chosen. Who motivated the A.T.F. investigation and was it retaliatory? What happened to the original gun that was confiscated? Who in fact attempted to alter the weapon? If Klinge were such a danger to society, why did it take A.T.F. so long to build a strong enough case to execute a search warrant? And most importantly, why was Klinge not given a serious fair warning by A.T.F. prior to an investigation, as is customary considering the ambiguity of the law? Would Klinge have responded respectfully and intelligently to such warning, considering that his family, freedom, passion, and life goals would be at risk otherwise?
Klinge did seem to know what he was doing. He’d require a license, a statement that any gun buyer was not a felon, a written receipt, and he would request to see a gun permit, if available. If Klinge ever had doubt about a buyer, he would run the transaction through an FFL Dealer, and on many occasions, he simply refused to deal with a questionable buyer or seller. He was careful with his transactions so as to keep guns out of the wrong hands. He did business in what he thought was the right way. A.T.F. couldn’t persuade him to participate in an illegal transaction, because he believed himself to be a law-abiding man. He was not taking it too far, not hiding anything, and he focused on making money with parts & accessories. He was working towards a passion that started when his father (my Grandfather) gave him his first gun.
My name is Christopher Piazza and Donald Klinge is my father (my name changed when I took guardianship of my brother and sister on my Mother’s side). I have written this story not out of spite, but with attention to truth and detail, and with a goal of spreading awareness. It is my informed interpretation and opinion that my dad’s arrest is the product of a malicious pursuit that resulted in a weak A.T.F. investigation. Furthermore, his imprisonment seemed to be for the purposes of marketing the consequence of his offense, rather than enforcing necessary correction or punishment.
Few people in the courtroom understood why a man who didn’t need to go to prison was sentenced to prison. It’s not just my sister who can’t understand making an example with a human’s life, out of “respect” for a law. There was simply a disconnect between what was said and what was decided in the courtroom; it did not seem like reason or rationale. My dad was an otherwise law-abiding, productive, loving, caring, father and member of our society. He was not a threat to anyone or anything (as the Judge made clear). Why then send him to prison? To be an example for the Federal Justice System? That is not good enough, especially when everything has already been taken away, and especially when the person paying the ultimate cost is my sister.
There is more to the law than what is written. There is reason and common sense. That is why the ultimate decision was left up to a judge, a fellow human being. Sending my father to prison will have effects far more negative than positive. The gamble that making an example of my Dad is going to make any difference in this world does not come close to outweighing the difference that’s made when my Dad is the good father to my sister. It is not hard to see that balance beam. Should truth outweigh law, and reason outweigh sentencing guidelines? Has my Dad already paid any price that should be owed? He stopped collecting over 4 year ago, and outside of his family, that is what he loved and it is gone. His dream of opening a gun shop is gone. His retirement, life savings, house, car, and much more, is gone. Klinge lived a modest life – a house in Greenwood, a Dodge SUV, dinners at chain restaurants, dance lessons for his daughter, no vacation in the last 8 years, no flashy possessions, just a simple life. That simple life is gone.
This is a story written by the 28-year old loving son of Donald Klinge who grew up with his Dad calling him into the living room to show him the newest addition to his prized gun collection – a collection that started with my Grandfather. And it should be made clear that I am not even a big fan of guns. Maybe there is a need for better gun control? The research showing that approximately 40% of guns are sold without background checks, if true, is troubling. My Dad even acknowledges that more extensive background screening may be needed. “I was very careful, and professional, about every transaction,” he said. “Most of the people at the shows were responsible gun owners, and I made sure that is who I dealt with. However, not everyone was as diligent as I was.” So maybe in light of our country’s recent heartbreaking events, it’s time for a reasonable approach to increasing the percentage of gun sales that require background checks? But that is another discussion, one that the nation is currently engaged in, and I encourage that conversation and hope that both sides of the argument find a reasonable approach to improving our nation’s gun control.
In the end, this story is not political. It is not a story against A.T.F., the judge or the many police officers who dedicate their lives to serving the people (I actually have a very good working relationship with IMPD). This is simply a true story – one that raises questions that should be raised. This story is dedicated to my sister who is an exceptional young lady and a reflection of my father.
What the Greenwood Police Department had to say…
Answered by Matthew Fillenwarth, public information officer
Details of the case:
In 2005, he was first pulled over for speeding. It was a routine traffic stop that brought him to our attention. He had a trunk load of rifles. He said he deals guns, but we later found he had no license. There’s a function test you can do with AR 15 rifle and it was indicated that it was modified to fully automatic. Their contention was that the gun was malfunctioning which is why it fired full auto. I can assure you that the gun was not modified once it came to the Police Department.
Results of Greenwood PD’s case:
The prosecutor put the case aside initially because the manufacturer said it could accidentally have been assembled to full auto. We have to prove there’s a criminal intent that it was converted into a machine gun. We were never able to charge him with a machine gun because we couldn’t prove intent. I was a supervisor during that time. He wanted a court order to get the weapon back, but I can’t release an illegal weapon.
How the ATF got involved:
We contacted the ATF about Mr. Klinge. I think the officer would have neglected his duty if he didn’t report the authorities. Every gun dealer has to have a Federal Firearms License. You have to be open for inspection and the ATF can come in and check your records at any time. There are all sorts of rules a dealer has to abide by. Guys like Klinge didn’t have to abide by any rules. If you want to buy and sell guns, it doesn’t matter if you operate out of your house or storefront, you have to do that background check. It’s guys like Klinge that try to get through those loopholes. Any time you deal with, be it ATF or FBI, they don’t do quick investigations. They had agents follow him to gun shows. The Feds were able to say this guy wasn’t selling just a few guns and he’s not doing background checks.
Officer Fillenwarth’s thoughts:
I’m sure it’s painful to drive your father to prison. A lot of people hate the police department. Everyone says the police are biased. The officer did a wonderful job as far as I’m concerned. It’s unfortunate that his family has to suffer while he goes away to prison, but as someone that believes in gun rights, it’s guys like him that are giving guns a bad name. This is why they want to close gun show loopholes. He wasn’t doing background checks. It’s a $200 fee to get your license to sell.
The gun control debate
Southside law enforcement officers share opinions on nationwide issue
By Nicole Davis
With the gun control debate shown on every mainstream news medium, the voices of politicians are loud and clear. But what do those that have to enforce these proposed laws and regulations think?
“Everyone is in competition,” said Charles Ellison, chief of police for the Southport Police Department. “How do you draw a happy medium?”
Ellison said though there are many factors that go into the gun control debate, offering gun owners proper training would be something he could support.
“By far more people are killed every year by drunk drivers,” Ellison said. “I think it’s just a matter of the person having the appropriate training and all that. Flying an airplane is safe but you have to have the appropriate training to do it.”
Lawmakers are proposing many solutions to the debate, from tax increases on firearms and accessories to banning certain types of guns. After the Sandy Hook shooting in Connecticut in December, these proposed changes on regulations have been brought much more to the forefront of political debates.
“Lawmakers are capitalizing on a tragic event with legislature that won’t do any good,” Fillenwarth said.
Additional taxes on firearms and ammunition would lead to higher prices, and Fillenwarth said he doesn’t know how people can afford to shoot guns now with a current 12 percent federal excise tax on all new ammunition. Ammunition prices have even grown to be a concern for the police and how much they can afford to order.
Fillenwarth said the police departments have been inundated with people applying for their permits to carry, though those permits are not what lawmakers are targeting. The right to carry a gun is a state’s decision to regulate and currently Illinois is the only state that does not allow this with or without a permit. Every time there is a large-scale political threat to remove firearms from individuals, gun sales and permit applications rise. The Greenwood Police Department filed an average of 69 permits per month last year, though the numbers rose from 55 in January 2012 to 115 in December. As of Jan. 9, residents applied for 76 gun permits. The Beech Grove Police Department had a rise of 117 applications in 2011 to 161 applications in 2012.
Fillenwarth said as a law enforcement officer, it’s frustrating to see people debating the same-old, same-old that doesn’t work.
“It doesn’t matter how many bullets a gun holds, or what it looks like,” Fillenwarth said. “In trained hands, any gun can kill as many people as an AK47 in a room of defenseless people.”
Everyone thinks they are safe until something happens, and Fillenwarth said that residents should be able to legally own firearms to protect themselves against the criminals.
“What about people that having a gun is the only way they feel safe living alone?” Fillenwarth said. “What about these elderly people that are constantly targeted as victims because they are elderly and weaker? As a police officer we cannot be everywhere, especially with shrinking budgets. As a police officer, I don’t go anywhere without a gun, not off duty or on duty. When you’re a police officer, you see what can happen in your own community. We respond after the crime has occurred. We have a five minute response time; that’s a long time.”
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