Could gun show background checks have prevented the Pizza Hut murders?

CREATED Jan 18, 2013

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  • Prosecutor Rick Unklesbay says by avoiding a background check one of the Pizza Hut killers was able to buy the murder weapon at age 19. If he'd had to buy from a licensed dealer he couldn't legally buy a handgun until age 21

  • NRA board member Todd Rathner disputes whether the killer really got his gun at a gun show. He says private sellers have a right to sell their guns but have no practical way to do background checks.

Reporter: Craig Smith

TUCSON (KGUN9-TV) - Could background checks at Tucson Convention Center gun shows have headed off a notorious triple homicide?  That's what a veteran prosecutor is wondering.

It all figures into the widening debate over gun control and whether the City of Tucson should continue to rent Tucson Convention Center to gun shows.

The murders at Pizza Hut in January 1999 still stand out as one of Tucson's most notorious crimes, fourteen years after Robert Curry, Melissa Moniz and James Bloxham died.
Rick Unklesbay prosecuted Bo Huerstel and Tom Prasertphong for the murders.  Huerstel's serving 25 years.  Prasertphone got life.
Now, Unklesbay's put an opinion piece in The Arizona Star saying the Pizza Hut murders refute the claim there's no recent link between multiple murders, and gun shows, where person to person gun sales can happen without a background check.

He says, "This gun was purchased in a gun show and it killed three innocent people."
Prasertphong told police he bought the handgun at a TCC gun show-without a background check.

KGUN9 reporter Craig Smith asked Unklesbay: "Were there things about him at the time that would have denied him a gun?"

Unklesbay: "If he had to go through a Federal licenced background check, under Federal law he would have had to be 21 to purchase through a Federally licenced dealer.  He was 19 at the time."
NRA board member Todd Rathner says in a civil lawsuit, Prasertphong changed his story and swore he did not buy a gun at the gun show.
Unklesbay says one way or another, Prasertphong's gun was the murder weapon and it traced to a private seller at the gun show.

Rathner says, "We know that anybody that's willing to commit murder is certainly willing to steal a gun out of somebody's home or to trade for a gun using drugs, which is the most common way criminals get guns."
Rather and Unklesbay partially agree on one thing.  Police monitor TCC gun shows and do find felons trying to buy. Unklesbay sees it as proof criminals try to exploit the lack of background checks, Rathner sees it as a chance to catch criminals.

Tucson City Councilman Steve Kozachik has pushed TCC gun shows to a prominent place in the gun law debate.  He wants to refuse to rent the Tucson convention center to gun shows unless they voluntarily require background checks on gun sales, or the law changes to require them.