Virginia U.S. attorney says she is ‘taking illegal guns off the streets’



In D.C. federal court, a Navy reservist is facing a maximum of three years in prison on misdemeanor charges that he breached the U.S. Capitol with the Proud Boys extremist group during the Jan. 6, 2021, attack.

But after an FBI search revealed what authorities described as three unregistered silencers he kept in an Alexandria storage unit among a cache of registered weapons, federal prosecutors in Virginia obtained a separate felony indictment that could send the reservist, Hatchet M. Speed, to prison for up to 30 years.

The aggressive move symbolizes how U.S. Attorney Jessica D. Aber of the Eastern District of Virginia has made a priority of prosecuting and publicizing as many gun-related cases as possible during her first year in office. Aber tweets and orders news releases about nearly every case involving guns that her office takes.

In an age of mass shootings and firearms proliferation, Aber says one of her top concerns as U.S. attorney is “taking illegal guns off the streets in every possible way we can.”

The latest data from the nonpartisan Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse at Syracuse University indicates that “weapons prosecutions” — a broad category that includes unlawful possession of a gun and crimes such as bank robberies that involve firearms — increased 15 percent in Aber’s district during her first year in office. From January to Dec. 1, authorities in the district seized 163 firearms, exceeding the 144 guns seized in 2021, according to data from the U.S. attorney’s office.

D.C. gun seizures are soaring — but charges aren’t sticking

U.S. officials say Speed is a heavily armed Nazi sympathizer with a top-level U.S. government security clearance, who worked with a defense and intelligence cyberoperations contractor in Vienna but resigned as he delved deeper into fringe ideologies.

His public defenders say Speed bought three solvent traps, which are used to clean guns but can be modified to work as silencers. The FBI found them untouched, in their original packaging, Speed’s attorneys said. His trial is scheduled to begin Monday.

An appointee of President Biden who in an interview described herself as “a woman in a Hyundai driving across the eastern half of Virginia,” Aber has been a prosecutor almost her entire career and took over the top job in her office in October 2021. She is the third Senate-confirmed woman to be U.S. attorney for the Eastern District of Virginia, a high-profile office that handles international terrorism, espionage, complex fraud and major violent crimes.

Colleagues and staff describe Aber, 41, as a careful lawyer who specialized in white-collar crime as a line prosecutor and rarely seeks the limelight. Aber was one of the prosecutors who put former Virginia governor Robert F. McDonnell (R) on trial for alleged corruption in 2014. The Supreme Court later overturned his conviction.

In an interview with The Washington Post, Aber suggested raising the minimum age to purchase semiautomatic rifles from 18 to 21. A spokeswoman for Aber said the measure was included in the Protecting Our Kids Act, a bill backed by the Biden administration, gun-control groups and some Republicans.

The legislation would raise the legal purchasing age to 21 for “any semiautomatic centerfire rifle or semiautomatic centerfire shotgun that has, or has the capacity to accept, an ammunition feeding device with a capacity exceeding 5 rounds.” The House passed the bill in June, but it lacks sufficient support to overcome a Republican filibuster in the Senate.

Aber said it could make a difference in preventing tragedy. The mass shootings at Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, Tex., and at a grocery store in a predominantly Black neighborhood in Buffalo both were carried out this year by gunmen who were 18 years old, armed with AR-15-style rifles. “When I see mass shootings, as a citizen, that seems to be a point in there, and the president has said that,” Aber said.

But she added: “It doesn’t matter if we have a gajillion laws on the books — it matters that we have community buy-in, that we have citizens who are willing to respect those laws and question those who possess firearms who are not lawfully possessing them. … We’ve heard a lot of that lately, about folks who have committed illegal acts who possess guns, and their family knew, their girlfriend knew, everybody knew this guy carried guns.”

Aber also offered criticism of a Supreme Court decision, New York State Rifle & Pistol Association v. Bruen, that expanded the right to bear arms this year. The decision, from the court’s conservative majority, struck down a New York law that required applicants to demonstrate “a special need for self-protection” before getting a handgun permit.

In a statement in June, a spokesperson for the Justice Department criticized the Supreme Court’s ruling. New York’s law was “reasonable,” the spokesperson said, noting an “epidemic of gun violence plaguing our communities.”

“I agree with the department that any time we can have common-sense laws that give us more tools to try to regulate firearms in a way that doesn’t exceed the bounds of the Second Amendment, I’m in favor of that,” Aber said in the interview.

Philip Van Cleave, president of the gun rights group Virginia Citizens Defense League, said raising the purchasing age for firearms from 18 to 21 would be unconstitutional. The Second Amendment says the right to bear arms “shall not be infringed,” he said. Van Cleave added that he was not aware of any time in U.S. history when gun sales were limited to adults over 21 years old.

“Nice try, but no cigar,” he said.

Aber spoke before the high-profile shootings at a Chesapeake, Va., Walmart, which is in her district, and at the University of Virginia, which is in the Western District of Virginia. In each of those cases, the suspected shooter was older than 21.

But in dozens of cases this year, prosecutors in Aber’s office have filed charges against people with unregistered or illegally purchased firearms. In one notable case, Aber’s office prosecuted a two-time all-American college football player, Kevin Staton Jr., who sold at least 45 guns through straw transactions and falsely stated on a federal form that he was buying the weapons for himself.

One of the firearms Staton was convicted of trafficking was recovered in Philadelphia seven months after his purchase, in connection with a series of crimes in 2020: a homicide, a shooting involving multiple victims and a shooting into a residence. Other firearms Staton trafficked were recovered throughout the country in connection with other homicides and shootings, or in the possession of convicted felons, officials said.

A jury convicted another defendant, Patrick Tate Adamiak, in October of possessing and selling unregistered machine guns. He faces up to 10 years in prison. Aber said some people turn guns into automatic weapons with extended-capacity magazines — the functional equivalent of machine guns under federal law — by fitting them with special parts available online. Agents from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives bought eight machine guns from Adamiak through a confidential source, according to a news release from Aber’s office, and recovered “25 additional unregistered machine guns” after searching his residence.

Aber said she appreciated provisions in the new Bipartisan Safer Communities Act that impose stiffer penalties for straw purchases, although her office had yet to file charges under the new law as of August.

“This does give us more flexibility, and I appreciate that it realizes the true problem, which is that folks are not just buying guns for prohibited people, but it enhances the penalty for people who intend to use those guns in crimes of violence,” she said.


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