Inside Straw Purchasing: How Criminals Get Guns Illegally

Mayors Against Illegal Guns

April 15, 2008

This report presents findings from an investigation into one of the main ways criminals get guns: Straw purchases (when one person poses as the buyer of a gun that is actually for someone else).

Overview of Illegal Trafficking

“Virtually every crime gun in the United States starts off as a legal firearm,” according to then-Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms (ATF) director Bradley Buckles in 2000.Department of the Treasury, Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms and Explosives. Following the Gun: Enforcing Federal Law Against Firearms Traffickers. Washington, D.C.: Department of the Treasury, 2000. In a 1997 report, the ATF looked at how guns then “pass through the legitimate distribution system of federally licensed firearms dealers” before ending up in the hands of criminals. The ATF concluded, in part, that, “there is a large problem of diversion to the illegal market from licensed gun establishments.”Department of Justice Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives. A Progress Report: Gun Dealer Licensing and Illegal Gun Trafficking (1997)

When a gun is recovered in a crime, the ATF can use the serial number on the gun to trace back to where it first left the legal market – tracing from the first sale of the firearm by an importer or manufacturer, to the wholesaler or retailer, to the first retail purchaser. In some cases, that first retail purchaser is the link between the legal and illegal markets.Department of Treasury Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives. ATF Snapshot 2007. Washington, D.C.: Department of the Treasury, 2007.

Looking at trace information from 1998, the ATF found that “a small group of dealers accounts for a disproportionately large number of crime gun traces.”Department of Treasury, Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives. ATF Regulatory Actions: Report to the Secretary on Firearms Initiatives. Washington, D.C.: Department of the Treasury, 2000. More than 85 percent of dealers in the U.S. had no crime guns traced to them at all in 1998, while about 1 percent of licensed firearm dealers accounted for 57 percent of traces that same year.Department of Treasury, Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives. Commerce in Firearms in the United States. Washington, D.C.: Department of the Treasury, 2000. The ATF also concluded that “sales volume alone cannot be said to account for the disproportionately large number of traces associated with those dealers.”Department of Treasury, Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives. ATF Regulatory Actions: Report to the Secretary on Firearms Initiatives. Washington, D.C.: Department of the Treasury, 2000.

Guns get from dealers to criminals in part through trafficking. “ATF’s trafficking investigations show that trafficked firearms are diverted to prohibited persons and are subsequently used in serious crimes,” according to an ATF report.Department of the Treasury, Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms and Explosives. Following the Gun: Enforcing Federal Law Against Firearms Traffickers. Washington, D.C.: Department of the Treasury, 2000. In trafficking investigations between 1996 and 1998, 25 percent involved guns used in an assault and 17 percent involved guns used in homicides.Department of the Treasury, Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms and Explosives. Following the Gun: Enforcing Federal Law Against Firearms Traffickers. Washington, D.C.: Department of the Treasury, 2000. (Percentages do not total to 100 because some investigations involved guns used in multiple types of crimes Nearly 5 million Americans were victims of violent crimes committed with firearms between 1993 and 2005.Department of Justice. “Nonfatal firearm-related violent crimes, 1993-2005.” DOJ. http://www.ojp.usdoj.gov/bjs/glance/tables/firearmnonfataltab.htm; Department of Justice. “Homicide trends in the U.S.” DOJ. http://www.ojp.usdoj.gov/bjs/homicide/tables/weaponstab.htm

The ATF examined gun-trafficking investigations from July 1996 to December 1998 and found that 46 percent of trafficking investigations during this period involved straw purchasers.Department of the Treasury, Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms and Explosives. Following the Gun: Enforcing Federal Law Against Firearms Traffickers. Washington, D.C.: Department of the Treasury, 2000; This was the only comprehensive study of its kind. This was nearly double the percentage of the next closest source.

What is a Straw Purchase?

“A ‘straw purchase’ occurs when the actual buyer of a firearm uses another person, the ‘straw purchaser,’ to execute the paperwork necessary to purchase a firearm from an FFL,” according to the ATF.Department of the Treasury, Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms and Explosives. Following the Gun: Enforcing Federal Law Against Firearms Traffickers. Washington, D.C.: Department of the Treasury, 2000. “A straw purchaser may be used when the actual buyer is prohibited from having firearms, such as a convicted felon or an individual who is less than 21 years of age. On other occasions, the actual buyer of the firearm may not be a prohibited person, but does not want the firearms to be listed in his or her name.”Department of the Treasury, Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms and Explosives. FFL Newsletter Federal Firearms Licensee Information Service. Washington, D.C.: Department of the Treasury, August 2005.

Federally-licensed firearms dealers (FFLs) must require each purchaser to complete an ATF Form 4473, which includes questions about whether the purchaser is prohibited from buying a firearm.Department of Treasury, Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives. Commerce in Firearms in the United States. Washington, D.C.: Department of the Treasury, 2000. One question asks whether the person filling out the form is, in fact, the actual buyer of the firearm, and warns:

“You are not the actual buyer if you are acquiring the firearm(s) on behalf of another person. If you are not the actual buyer, the dealer cannot transfer the firearm(s) to you.”

Straw purchasers break the law when they answer “yes” to this question.

Straw Purchases: Investigative Findings

Scope of Investigation

One former trafficker we interviewed called the store where he purchased guns the “easiest store in Georgia.” “That was the word – you want some guns, you go to [that store].”Interview with Georgia trafficker

In this investigation, we reviewed information from a variety of reports, studies, court documents and other material, including: court filings from more than 1,000 gun-related prosecutions of alleged gun traffickers, straw purchasers and others (these prosecutions concerned the sale of more than 14,000 firearms in more than 4,000 separate transactions); reports from government agencies, including: The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF); the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI); the Department of Justice; and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention; gun-industry material on trafficking and straw purchasing; studies by experts.

We also conducted interviews with more than 100 witnesses, identified in large part from the gun-related prosecutions cited above, including: gun traffickers; straw purchasers who bought guns for traffickers; former employees of gun stores; current and former Federal Firearms License holders (i.e., gun-store owners); former gang members and other criminals with a history of gun-related crime; victims of gun crimes; former prosecutors; law enforcement officers; and other experts.

Findings

Following are our 12 findings about how some licensed gun dealers sell handguns to illegal traffickers through straw purchases:

1. Traffickers picked “easy” stores

Based on a review of information from more than 1,000 gun-trafficking prosecutions, we noted numerous instances where a trafficker would return again and again to the same store. For example, in a Pennsylvania case filed in 2006, a straw purchaser bought 27 guns, revisiting the same store 15 times in about nine months, in exchange for crack and/or money.U.S.A. v. Downs, et al. Filed September 2006 in U.S. District Court, Eastern District of Pennsylvania. In Georgia, a trafficking ring used straws to buy 26 guns over seven visits to the same store and then resold them on the streets of New York City.U.S.A. v. Blount, et al. Filed November 2001 in U.S. District Court, Southern District of New York.Georgia.

Interviews and other research indicates that these repeated visits to the same store happen because traffickers identify stores where they can make straw purchases easily, and then stick with those stores. For example:

  • One former trafficker we interviewed called the store where he purchased guns at age 26 the “easiest store in Georgia.” “That was the word – you want some guns, you go to [that store].” He first went there because a friend of his was already trafficking guns from the store.Interview with Georgia trafficker. (It is possible that when this or other straw purchases described in this report were made, the gun stores were cooperating with federal law enforcement authorities.)

    This trafficker testified that he bought at least 55 guns in five visits to this store – three during a three-week period in 1998 – using straw purchasers and fake IDs.February 2008 Deposition of Herman Ward in City of New York v. A-1 Jewelry and Pawn, et al. Filed May 2006 in U.S. District Court, Eastern District of New York He served seven years in jail.

    The store where this trafficker purchased guns had more than 600 traces
    between 1996 and 2000, and it allegedly sold at least 300 guns to straw purchasers between 1998 and 2006, according to a review of prosecutions and an analysis of trace data. This number of traces was at least 170 times the 1998 national average of 0.67 traces per licensed gun dealer, per year.Selling Crime: High Crime Gun Stores Fuel Criminals. Washington, D.C.: Americans for Gun Safety, 2004.; U.S.A. v. Salazar. Filed May 2004 in U.S. District Court, Southern District of New York.; U.S.A. v. Robinson. Filed March 2005 in U.S. District Court, Southern District of Ohio.; U.S.A. v. Walker. Filed October 1998 in U.S. District Court, Southern District of Ohio.; U.S.A. v. Hancock. Filed February 1995 in U.S. District Court, Southern District of Ohio.; U.S.A. v. Perkins. Filed February 1995 in U.S. District Court, Southern District of Ohio. In 1998, there were 55,990 crime gun traces among the 83,272 dealers nationwide. Department of Treasury, Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives. Commerce in Firearms in the United States. Washington, D.C.: Department of the Treasury, 2000.

  • In 2007, one gun store near New Orleans was shut down after more than 10 years in business. The ATF traced large numbers of crime guns back to this store and some sales were identified as “straw sales” in a 2007 press release from the U.S. Attorney’s Office in the Eastern District of Louisiana.ATF Press release. “ATF/Secret Service Arrest 3, Seize Inventory of Gun Dealer ‘Fueling Violent Crime in New Orleans.” May 16, 2007. Interviewed in the press about the store’s closing, retired Police Officer Charles Donovan, who ran his own gun store nearby, was quoted as saying the store “had exclusive clientele that would go to him because it was no questions asked.”US News and World Report, “A Well-Worn Path to a Gun Shop Door,” July 15, 2007
  • The leader of “one of the most prolific, profitable and violent drug trafficking organizations” bought more than 100 guns from the same Connecticut gun shop, according to the store owner’s 2006 indictment.May 2006 indictment in U.S.A. v. D’Andrea. Filed April 2006 in U.S. District Court in Connecticut. Many guns were purchased through “open and obvious straw purchase transactions,” according to a court filing.

  • After being in jail from 1990 to 1995, the drug trafficker went back to the store “and began purchasing firearms using the same techniques as before, i.e., through the use of straw purchasers.” The store’s owner “specifically advised [him] how to structure his straw purchases to avoid the multiple sales reporting requirement and to avoid drawing the attention of law enforcement or firearms regulators,” according to the indictment.May 2006 indictment in U.S.A. v. D’Andrea. Filed April 2006 in U.S. District Court in Connecticut. (The store owner pleaded guilty to charges against him in November 2007.)September 2007 judgment in U.S.A. v. D’Andrea. Filed April 2006 in U.S. District Court in Connecticut.
  • A male drug dealer who was a felon used a straw purchaser to buy two 9mm Hi-Points and one Mac-11 in a single trip to a pawnshop in South Carolina he told us. He said, “Buying a gun is like buying candy.”Interview with South Carolina trafficker.

2. Straw Purchasers Paid in Drugs and Money

Traffickers usually recruit straw purchasers who are close at hand, often a relative or girlfriend.Interviews with Pennsylvania, South Carolina and Georgia straw purchasers. Cash payments for making straw purchases vary from around $20 to $100 per gun, our interviews indicate.Interviews with traffickers and straws.

Straw purchasers are sometimes drug addicts who buy guns in exchange for drugs or money, our interviews indicate.Interviews with Florida, Georgia traffickers and straw purchasers. A former Miami gang member, who is now 38 years old, told us: He bought his first gun from a neighbor at age 15 and became a member of the Latin Kings soon after that. “When you’re a gang member, you have to carry a firearm.” Over four years, he and his fellow gang members made 50 to 60 straw purchases from four gun stores. Their straw purchasers were drug addicts who approached them in a local park and bought guns in exchange for drugs or money. “Where there’s dope, there’s guns,” he said.Interview with Florida trafficker.

He and fellow gang members – wearing their gang colors and with visible gang tattoos – took the straw purchasers into stores where the owners and employees knew them. They often bought .22 pistols because of their concealability. The employees at these stores never attempted to stop any of their straw purchases. The employees did not protest when the gang member asked if he could fit a shotgun he was buying under a coat. This former gang member left the gang with the help of the Miami Police gang unit and later worked with law enforcement in investigations.Interview with Florida trafficker

Sometimes traffickers and straw purchasers are visibly on drugs while they are in gun stores, our interviews indicate.

One Georgia straw purchaser told us: He was on drugs when he bought dozens of guns during four straw purchases at the same store over five months. He knew nothing about guns. Before each of his straw purchases, he smoked cocaine-laced marijuana, so he smelled of drugs and his eyes were bloodshot; “It was obvious I was under the influence.” He was also in a hurry when he bought guns because he knew the trafficker would pay him just after the purchase and he would be able to buy more drugs.Interview with Georgia straw purchaser.

This straw told us that each time he went in, the same two employees were in the store and treated him like a VIP. They gave him their “undivided attention” and knew he would be buying multiple guns, the trafficker said. The store gave him a free gun with every four he purchased. This straw said he later cooperated with the ATF in their investigation of the trafficking ring for which he bought guns. He learned through this cooperation that guns he bought were sold in New York.Interview with Georgia straw purchaser

A Virginia trafficker told us: He paid his straw purchasers $40 and a gram of crack each time they bought a gun for him. He gave one of his straws a little of the crack up front and the rest after she got the gun. He and a different straw smoked crack in his truck while the store did the straw’s background check, and then they reentered the store high.Interview with Virginia trafficker

3. Some Dealers Sell to Straws Who Know Nothing About Guns

“Straw purchasers usually know nothing about the weapons they claim to have bought,” according to a United States Attorneys’ Bulletin article written by ATF Special Agent Mark Kraft.Kraft, Mark. “Firearms Trafficking 101 Or Where Do Crime Guns Come From?” United States Attorneys’ Bulletin, January 2002.

Interviews we conducted indicate that a customer who is not knowledgeable about the gun that he/she is purporting to purchase is a red flag for some dealers, but not for others. For example, one former employee of a gun dealer in Pennsylvania said that he recognized as a potential straw purchaser anyone who entered his store looking lost or confused. His legitimate customers usually knew what they wanted.Interview with former Pennsylvania gun seller

Most of the straw purchasers we interviewed (all of whom were indicted for making straw purchases) said they had no knowledge of guns, and several felt this was obvious to the salesmen.

One of the Philadelphia straw purchasers we interviewed, who had never handled a gun before or even been in a gun store before said, “The salesman should know guys make girls buy them guns like that. I never held the gun. I know nothing about guns.” This straw purchaser was forced to buy the guns by a trafficker who threatened to hurt her. She even tried to jump out of the car when she was being driven to the gun store, but he grabbed her arm to stop her. She learned from the ATF that the trafficker sold one of the guns she bought for him to a 13-year-old boy.Interview with Pennsylvania straw purchaser

4. Most Straw Purchases are Done With the Trafficker in the Store

A trafficker who uses a straw purchaser to acquire a gun typically “selects the gun and directs the purchase,” according to a 2002 United States Attorneys’ Bulletin article written by ATF Special Agent Mark Kraft.

This pattern held with the traffickers and straw purchasers we interviewed – most traffickers accompanied their straws into the store.

Based on a review of information from more than 1,000 gun-related prosecutions, we noted 486 instances where the method of straw purchase could be clearly identified from available court filings. About 60 percent of the time, the trafficker and straw purchaser entered the store together.

Traffickers often gave their straw purchasers the money for the guns they wanted before entering the store, although some did not, our interviews indicate. One trafficker, who was also a gang member, told us he always gave his straws the money while they were in the store together – usually in front of the store clerk – because the straw purchasers “couldn’t be trusted” with the money.Interview with Florida trafficker

A Virginia trafficker told us that he used his girlfriend as a straw purchaser six times at the same store. He said, “I ran the show. My girlfriend didn’t know a gun from a Big Mac.” This trafficker was knowledgeable about handguns and had shopped at the store before making straw purchases there. Each time they went into the store together, the trafficker told the store owner which gun he wanted, the owner did a background check on the girlfriend, and then the trafficker handed payment for the gun directly to the store owner. He used other women as straw purchasers at two Virginia pawn shops. “The dealers were more interested in my money being green than who was buying the gun.”Interview with Virginia trafficker

Many traffickers interact with the gun salesmen, even haggling over price and asking specific questions such as how many bullets the gun carries, our interviews indicate.Interview with Pennsylvania straw purchaser

A former employee of a gun store told us he recalled instances at his store where a woman looked at jewelry or some other product in the store while a man handled several different guns. The woman went to the gun counter to fill out the paperwork after the man had made his selections. The former employee suspected these were straw purchases, but the store where he worked made these sales anyway, according to the former employee.Interview with former South Carolina gun seller

Some traffickers tapped the glass, pointed, or otherwise physically indicated to the straw which guns they wanted. One straw told us that the trafficker – who was a 24-year-old drug dealer – pointed to a gun and, within earshot of a nearby salesman, told her it was the one he wanted her to buy.Interview with Pennsylvania straw purchaser

Generally the trafficker selects the gun or the straw purchaser picks out the gun the trafficker had told her to buy, the straw fills out a Form 4473 and submits identification as if she were the actual purchaser of the gun, our interviews and review of prosecutions indicate. The seller then runs a background check on the straw purchaser.

They Buy Multiple Guns Per Visit (Often the Same Model of Cheaper Guns)

Multiple sales accounted for 20 percent of all traces of guns sold in 2000 and recovered at urban crime scenes that year, according to an ATF study of national trace data.Department of the Treasury, Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms and Explosives. Crime Gun Trace Reports (2000) National Report. Washington, D.C.: Department of Justice, 2002. The ATF’s definition of a multiple sale includes purchases of two or more guns within five business days. See 27 CFR § 478.126a

A review of gun-related prosecutions indicates that many traffickers have their straw purchasers buy more than one gun per visit. From a review of nearly 300 prosecutions in the Eastern District of Pennsylvania, we noted at least 185 cases where a trafficker allegedly made one or more visits to a particular store and used a straw to buy multiple guns during at least one of those visits.Following is a list of those cases filed in the Eastern District of Pennsylvania: 06cr00033; 02cr00539; 98cr00437; 05cr00555; 05cr00540; 05cr00421; 03cr00279; 02cr00667; 02cr00069; 99cr00540; 06cr00639; 03cr00622; 02cr00470; 03cr00269; 04cr00059; 01cr00142; 99cr00055; 04cr00296; 06cr00500; 04cr00573; 98cr00060; 00cr00738; 06cr00461; 97cr00326; 06cr00213; 02cr00210; 00cr00529; 99cr00500; 01cr00129; 03cr00282; 00cr00483; 01cr00435; 00cr00484; 01cr00436; 05cr00291; 01cr00439; 03cr00822; 01cr00666; 98cr00443; 00cr00086; 01cr00368; 00cr00246; 02cr00051; 04cr00140; 07cr00146; 01cr00152; 99cr00506; 07cr00506; 99cr00512; 04cr00384; 98cr00505; 06cr00716; 02cr00394; 04cr00816; 03cr00785; 04cr00461; 02cr00058; 99cr00513; 99cr00493; 00cr00245; 99cr00558; 99cr00494; 00cr00084; 07cr00508; 01cr00086; 07cr00509; 99cr00591; 00cr00089; 04cr00235; 05cr00414; 02cr00362; 04cr00254; 02cr00471; 02cr00726; 03cr00026; 03cr00331; 03cr00561; 06cr00146; 05cr00727; 04cr00227; 06cr00171; 99cr00007; 05cr00552; 06cr00660; 04cr00449; 99cr00463; 99cr00310; 99cr00215; 05cr00331; 02cr00226; 99cr00508; 99cr00480; 00cr00030; 00cr00279; 99cr00309; 99cr00665; 98cr00437; 99cr00308; 05cr00324; 99cr00561; 04cr00475; 99cr00479; 02cr00224; 04cr00675; 06cr00525; 96cr00568; 97cr00599; 96cr00260; 04cr00831; 02cr00547; 02cr00391; 02cr00725; 01cr00593; 04cr00446; 03cr00697; 01cr00461; 01cr00158; 99cr00280; 97cr00132; 04cr00502; 96cr00201; 98cr00021; 06cr00534; 07cr00626; 98cr00063; 03cr00126; 07cr00516; 06cr00551; 06cr00443; 05cr00556; 06cr00143; 04cr00823; 04cr00578; 99cr00183; 01cr00580; 04cr00238; 06cr00506; 03cr00250; 00cr00698; 06cr00122; 05cr00449; 97cr00486; 04cr00108; 03cr00334; 04cr00518; 99cr00179; 03cr00426; 04cr00517; 98cr00437; 03cr00694; 99cr00489; 05cr00052; 06cr00534; 04cr00362; 05cr00127; 02cr00600; 07cr00173; 99cr00113; 06cr00372; 01cr00666; 07cr00254; 06cr00526; 06cr00316; 05cr00080; 02cr00301; 04cr00353; 05cr00385; 00cr00478; 96cr00150; 05cr00183; 01cr00070; 00cr00672; 99cr00506; 02cr00216; 06cr00374; 05cr00142; 05cr00640; 01cr00390; 02cr00547; 99cr00352; 96cr00196; 02cr00471; 04cr00474; 06cr00213; 05cr00301. For example, two traffickers indicted in the Eastern District of Pennsylvania bought 93 guns in 27 visits to the same store over a six-month period.U.S.A. v. Johnson et al. Filed August 1999 in U.S. District Court, Eastern District of Pennsylvania.

A number of the straw purchasers we interviewed bought more than one gun during each store visit and bought guns more than once for the same trafficker. One straw purchaser bought 16 guns for a man she lived with, who was a felon at the time. She told us that she once bought 10 guns from the same store in one week, and the store gave her a discount for buying so many.Interview with Pennsylvania straw purchaser A Georgia trafficker we interviewed purchased 15 guns in one visit and 60 more from the same store over a three-month period.Interview with Georgia trafficker

A number of straw purchasers we interviewed were asked by traffickers to purchase multiple guns of the same model.

We interviewed a straw purchaser in Ohio who bought 12 Hi-Point handguns over four trips to gun dealers (including two visits to the same pawn shop).Interview with Ohio straw purchaser

One female straw purchaser from Georgia told us: When she was 21, she began dating a man who clearly had a lot of money – he picked her up in a limo on their first date. After dating for a few months, he asked her to buy guns for him. He drove her to the store in his Cadillac Escalade three times in 18 days to buy Brycos for him, she told us.Interview with Georgia straw purchaser The first time, she bought 11 guns; eight days later, she bought 14 guns; and 10 days after that, she bought six guns, according to her indictment.October 2001 Indictment in U.S.A. v. Mathews, et al. Filed October 2001 in U.S. District Court, Southern District of New York.

After one of the purchases, she heard her boyfriend and another man filing the serial numbers off the guns, she said. She later pleaded guilty and testified against her boyfriend.Testimony in U.S.A. v. Stevens et al. Filed January 2003 in U.S. District Court in the Southern District of New York. She received probation and paid a fine.

Another straw we interviewed was a junior in college when she bought 26 guns from the same Ohio gun store during two visits in 2002.Interview with Ohio straw purchaser On her first visit, she bought nine guns from the store, five of which were the same model, a Jennings 9mm, according to her indictment.U.S.A. v. Craver. Filed December 2003 in U.S. District Court, South District of Ohio. Ten days later, she and the trafficker returned to the same store and bought 17 more guns, including 15 more Jennings 9mms.

Traffickers we interviewed usually picked cheap guns for their straws to buy because they could resell these guns at a higher profit than more expensive models. Some of these traffickers mentioned as examples several brands of handgun that they bought for less than $150. “They were what was common on the streets,” according to one straw.Interview with Ohio straw purchaser

One trafficker preferred a particular model because he thought it was easy to remove the serial number of that model.Interview with Ohio trafficker Some relatively inexpensive handguns have a shorter time to crime, according to the ATF.Department of the Treasury, Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms and Explosives. Crime Gun Trace Reports (2000) National Report. Washington, D.C.: Department of Justice, 2002.

6. Some Salesmen Are Willing to Sell Despite Suspicions

Some gun salesmen appear to have found multiple purchases suspicious but sold the guns anyway.

The gun saleswoman told us she sold 10 handguns of the same brand to one man and figured he would be “selling them to children on the streets, or gangs.” — September 2007

One allegedly commented on a straw’s request for three guns, saying, “Well, you only have two hands,” but then sold her the guns.Interview with Ohio straw purchaser A former gun saleswoman, who told us she did not know what a straw purchase was, remembered customers buying multiple inexpensive handguns of a particular brand, which she called “throw-away guns.” She sold 10 handguns of this brand to one man and told us she figured the customer would be “selling them to children on the streets, or gangs.”Interview with former Georgia gun seller

A former employee of an Indiana gun store – who sold guns for four years – told us straw purchases and other suspicious gun sales were a fairly common occurrence at the store where he worked.Interview with a former Indiana gun seller This former employee also told us that his store got many trace requests from the ATF, sometimes as frequently as one a day, and that he felt this was an indication that the store was selling into the illegal market. We checked publicly available trace information regarding the store and found that it did in fact have high numbers of traces – more than 600 times the 1998 national average of 0.67 traces per year, according to 1996-2000 data.Selling Crime: High Crime Gun Stores Fuel Criminals. Washington, D.C.: Americans for Gun Safety, 2004. In 1998, there were 55,990 crime gun traces among the 83,272 dealers nationwide. Department of Treasury, Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives. Commerce in Firearms in the United States. Washington, D.C.: Department of the Treasury, 2000.

Some former gun-store employees said they identified and attempted to halt straw purchases but were overridden by management. For example, a former employee from a South Carolina gun store told us that in one instance, he became convinced that a woman was engaged in a straw purchase on behalf of a male companion and refused to complete the transaction. At that point, according to the former employee, the store owner told the employee, “Don’t ever accuse me of doing something illegal again,” and completed the transaction himself.Interview with former South Carolina gun seller

A former employee of a gun dealer in Georgia told us he only refused a sale if the purchaser said outright he was a convicted felon or was buying the gun for someone else. This clerk sold many guns he suspected might end up in the hands of traffickers. “Some were fairly obvious straw buyers,” he told us.Interview with former Georgia gun seller

7. Some Dealers Coach Customers on Straw Purchasing

Our interviews indicate that some gun dealers coached customers on how to complete a straw purchase. One former employee of a gun dealer, who now works building and repairing computers, said his colleagues regularly told customers who failed the background check to return with someone else who could stand in for them. “They would ask if their father or brother or girlfriend could come in and pass the background check, and then we could sell it to that person. The next day the girlfriend or fiancée or friend would show up and buy the gun. I’ve seen it happen left and right.”Interview with former Georgia gun seller

A trafficker said gun stores “taught” him how to cover up straw purchases. When he went into a store and tried to use his wife as a straw purchaser, the seller told him she should come back the next day and buy the gun alone, which she did.Interview with Virginia trafficker

8. Questioning a Straw Can Prevent an Illegal Sale

A straw purchaser in Ohio, who was a 24-year-old single mother when she bought guns, told us how questioning prevented her from completing an illegal transaction. She told us she bought 17 9mm handguns of the same brand for a trafficker who re-sold them in New York City. The straw purchaser bought most of the guns from three Ohio stores and a gun show.Interview with Ohio straw purchaser

When the straw purchaser asked the salesmen for two 9mm handguns, they asked her a series of questions…The questioning caused this experienced straw purchaser to leave the store nervously. She did not buy the guns she came for.

However, when this straw purchaser went to a store operated by former police officers, the employees there asked her questions about her purchase. “As soon as I walked into the store, I had a sense that the men were concerned about why I was making the purchase.”Interview with Ohio straw purchaser

When she asked the salesmen for two 9mm handguns, they asked her a series of questions, including where she would be taking the guns and whether she had a child at home. They asked if she had a place to keep the guns where she could get to them quickly if she needed to defend herself but that would be inaccessible to her child.Interview with Ohio straw purchaser

The questioning caused this experienced straw purchaser to leave the store. She called the trafficker that sent her into the store from the parking lot. He told her to forget about making the purchase. She did not reenter the store and did not buy the guns she came for.Interview with Ohio straw purchaser

9. Many Stores Recognize and Reject Straw Sales

We interviewed the owner of that Ohio store. He told us he was always on the lookout for straw purchases and other suspicious sales.Interview with Ohio straw purchaser He told us that he and his employees watched for several signs that a sale might be a straw purchase or otherwise inappropriate, as follows:

  • Instances in which a man picked out a gun and then the woman with him attempted to buy it;
  • A money exchange inside the store between two people who came in together;
  • Women who came into the store alone to buy guns and did not appear to have a sensible answer about what gun they wanted and why;
  • Payment with cash, especially small bills, as this suggests the customer earned the money selling drugs; and
  • People who were intoxicated.

What is the result of this vigilance? While only anecdotal, we note the following:

  • Of the more than 1,000 gun-related prosecutions we noted, we found no cases that involved guns purchased at this Ohio store.
  • On the other hand, we found at least five prosecutions between 1994 and 2005 that allegedly involved the straw purchase of 235 guns purchased at one of the stores where the Ohio straw above bought many of her guns. These two stores are located within 45 miles of one another.

In 2006, investigators hired by the City of New York presented a simulated straw purchase to more than 50 gun dealers in six states. The dealers approached for this integrity test had multiple traces to guns used in crimes in New York City.

Among these more than 50 dealers, nearly a third spotted the simulated straw purchase and refused to complete the sale.

10. Employees’ Lack of Training on Spotting Straw Purchases

Despite the available guidance on how to spot a straw purchase (see Appendix A), a number of the former employees we interviewed said they did not receive any training from their employers on how to spot a straw purchase or were unclear about store policy on this issue.

A number of former gun-store employees we interviewed said they did not receive any training from their employers on how to spot a straw purchase.

For example, a woman who worked a Georgia gun store for two years told us she was instructed only to sell guns to people who checked “no” on all of the questions on the Form 4473 and who provided a valid ID. When interviewed, she did not know what a straw purchase was. A former employee at a store in South Carolina said his only instructions were to be careful not to sell to anyone who as underage; the owner did not instruct him on straw purchases or other suspicious sales.Interviews with former gun sellers

11. Trafficking Guns Across State Lines is Common

After acquiring firearms, traffickers told us that they often resold them in other states where it was harder to buy guns. One trafficker bought guns in Georgia, then resold them in Maryland.Interview with Georgia trafficker

One trafficker we spoke with attributed interstate trafficking to what he understood as “big demand” for “cheap, throw-away” guns in places like New York and California, but no demand in Ohio, where he purchased the guns through straw purchasers from gun stores, flea markets and pawn shops. This trafficker initially bought guns himself but began using straw purchasers because he “didn’t want 50 guns floating around out there in [his] name.”Interview with Ohio trafficker

“There is substantial interstate smuggling of handguns,” according to a statistical analysis of ATF trace data from 1989 to 1997 by National Economic Research Associates (NERA) submitted on behalf of the plaintiffs in Hamilton v. Accu-Tek.The 1998 report relied on “review of available literature” and “regression analysis to test statistically whether the difference in the severity of a pair of states’ gun laws can explain the movement of crime guns between states.” The study used ATF trace data from 1989 to 1997. “Most of this smuggling is from states with relatively weak controls over handgun sales, such as Florida, to states with relatively strict controls, such as New York.”Expert report of Lucy Allen and Jonathan Portes, National Economic Research Associates (NERA) in Hamilton v. AccuTek, Filed January 1995 in U.S. District Court, Eastern District of New York. NERA defined a state’s level of control based on whether it had the following limits: requiring a license or permit for purchase, requiring an ID card for purchase, restrictions on multiple purchases, a waiting period, requiring a local dealer’s license, and reporting sales to state or local agency. More recent trace data supports NERA’s conclusions. In 2006, 71 percent of New York State’s and 66 percent of Massachusetts’s crime guns originated out of state, according to ATF trace data.Department of the Treasury, Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms and Explosives. “ATF Firearms Trace Data.” ATF. http://www.atf.gov/firearms/trace_data/index.htm

12. Traffickers Make Big Profit on Cheap Guns

Traffickers we interviewed favored cheaper guns because the mark-up was higher. One trafficker told us: In 2003, when he was in his mid-20s, he and a friend began buying guns in Georgia for between $100 and $120 and reselling them in Maryland for hundreds of dollars more per gun.Interview with Georgia trafficker He picked Maryland because he knew there was a waiting period to buy guns there, unlike in Georgia. Also, he knew his way around Maryland because he had family there.

He drove guns up to Maryland five or six times. The first three or four times, he drove into inner-city neighborhoods and sold guns to people he met on the street. The last two or three times, he sold guns to a man who was then reselling them. That man was later caught in Washington, D.C. with a gun the trafficker sold him, which is what led to the trafficker’s arrest.

One trafficker told us he bought $99 guns in Georgia and sold them for $600 in New York.Interview with Georgia trafficker Another trafficker only bought Hi-Point 9mms, because he could sell a Glock that cost hundreds of dollars for only a couple hundred more in New York, while he could sell a $99 HiPoint for $500.Interview with Ohio trafficker

A Virginia trafficker told us he bought about 30 guns in Virginia for between $150 and $200 and sold them in New York for $500 to $600 each.Interview with Virginia trafficker

Other Areas of Investigation

While our investigation focused on straw purchasing, we also reviewed information on other issues that play a role in guns moving from the legal to the illegal market. Our review suggests that additional investigation is warranted to identify remedies to the “problem of diversion to the illegal market from licensed gun establishments.”Department of Justice Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives. A Progress Report: Gun Dealer Licensing and Illegal Gun Trafficking (1997).

“Off-the-Book at Gun Shows

“Gun shows and flea markets are a major venue for illegal trafficking,” according to the ATF report titled “Following the Gun.” Fourteen percent of ATF’s criminal trafficking investigations between 1996 and 1998 involved guns purchased from gun shows, the third-highest trafficking channel after straw purchases and unlicensed sellers.Department of the Treasury, Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms and Explosives. Following the Gun: Enforcing Federal Law Against Firearms Traffickers. Washington, D.C.: Department of the Treasury, 2000.

Many ATF investigations at gun shows involved FFLs that were selling firearms “off-thebook,” according to the Treasury and Justice departments’ review of a sampling of investigations involving gun shows between 1991 and 1998.Department of the Treasury, Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms and Explosives. Gun Shows: Brady Checks and Crime Gun Traces. Washington, D.C.: Department of the Treasury, 1999. Gun shows also provide opportunities for other violations, including straw purchases. Unlicensed gun dealers are not required by federal law to perform background checks at gun shows.Department of the Treasury, Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms and Explosives. Gun Shows: Brady Checks and Crime Gun Traces. Washington, D.C.: Department of the Treasury, 1999.

ID Requirements Aren’t Effective

Traffickers can easily buy guns with false identification. Between October 2000 and February 2001, the GAO conducted an investigation using counterfeit driver’s licenses with fake identifiers to purchase guns from licensed dealers in five states – Virginia, West Virginia, Montana, New Mexico and Arizona. Each of the five states conformed to the Brady law by requiring instant background checks and, for the most part, the dealers adhered to this requirement. However, because the purchasers used counterfeit IDs with fake identities, and because the verification procedures checked only for negative information in the database and did not verify authenticity, the GAO investigators were able to purchase guns.General Accounting Office. Counterfeit Identification and Identification Fraud, Statement of Robert J. Cramer, Managing Director Office of Special Investigations to the Senate Committee on Finance, 2001.

Guns Stolen and Missing From Dealers Feed Illegal Market

In 2005, the ATF conducted inspections of more than 3,000 FFLs and found 12,274 firearms missing. Nearly all of the guns, 11,640, were missing from only 97 dealers.Department of Justice Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives. ATF 2005 Annual Report. Washington, D.C.: Department of the Treasury, 2006. This raises questions about the practices of those dealers, particularly given that the ATF has identified “significant or frequently reported firearms losses or thefts by an FFL” as “indicators of illegal trafficking.”Department of Treasury, Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives. Commerce in Firearms in the United States. Washington, D.C.: Department of the Treasury, 2000.

Terrorism Suspects Are Able to Buy Guns

During a nine-month period in 2004, people on the FBI’s terrorist watch list were able to buy guns in 47 out of the 58 times they tried, according to a GAO study published in 2005. Most of the purchases were allowed to proceed because background checks of most of the purchasers “found no prohibiting information, such as felony convictions, illegal immigrant status, or other disqualifying factors.”Government Accountability Office. Gun Control and Terrorism: FBI Could Better Manage Firearm-Related Background Checks Involving Terrorist Watch List Records. Washington, D.C.: GAO, 2005.