Why Straw Buys Are So Hard To Stop

Photo Courtesy of the National Shooting Sports Foundation

The murder of Chicago police officer Ella French has put the spotlight on the illegal practice of “straw purchasing,” which in essence simply means purchasing a firearm at retail for someone else rather than yourself. That’s allegedly how the French’s suspected killers obtained the .22 caliber pistol used in their crime; a friend from Hammond, Indiana went to a gun store, filled out the federal Form 4473 and passed the required background check before walking out with the handgun. The only problem is that Jamel Danzy allegedly lied on the 4473 when he affirmed that he was purchasing the firearm for himself and not for anyone else.

As part of their coverage of French’s death a reporter for Chicago’s CBS affiliate focused on the straw buy itself, but Chris Tye apparently doesn’t understand that while straw purchases are illegal, it’s also incredibly difficult to proactively enforce the law before a sale takes place.

Tye asked Juan Cloy, a former FBI Task Force agent and an expert on the gun pipeline, what good the system is doing if a paperwork clerical box check allows people to make straw gun purchases like Danzy is accused of doing.

“It’s not doing a whole lot of good,” Cloy said.

He also said there is no way to target and shut off the valve for straw men.

“No, there’s not a real way to do that. Just say, ‘OK, I checked the box,’ and you know, from there, there’s really no checks and balances for that,” Cloy said. ”No. No sir.”

What kind of “checks and balances” would Tye like to see, exactly? How would the ATF investigate every gun purchase to proactively determine whether the applicant is telling the truth on the Form 4473?

The reality is that, just like with universal background checks, there is no way for police to proactively enforce the law. Oh sure, gun retailers can and do contact authorities if they see suspicious behavior on the part of a buyer, but in the case of Jamel Danzy, it doesn’t sound like there were any red flags beforehand. Danzy allegedly gave the pistol to Eric Morgan after he purchased it, but there’s no indication that Morgan was anywhere near the gun store itself when Danzy filled out the paperwork and bought the firearm.

In essence, Tye is asking “why can’t we stop people from lying?” Now, I know that there’s supposedly no such thing as a stupid question, but that comes pretty close in my opinion.

In truth, the best way to prevent straw purchases is to ensure that they’re prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law. The National Shooting Sports Foundation has long promoted it’s “Don’t Lie for the Other Guy” campaign that seeks to inform would-be straw buyers of the potential ten-year federal prison sentence that they could receive for taking part in a straw purchase, which is incredibly helpful. Still, it should be noted that when straw buyers are prosecuted in federal court, they often end up with much lighter sentences that what the law allows.

A Washington, D.C. man was sentenced today to one year in prison for aiding and abetting the illegal straw purchase of five firearms.

According to court documents, Manuel Christopher Thomas, 28, and Paul Laurence Chambers, 21, aided and abetted the straw purchase of five firearms from federal firearm licensees in the Eastern District of Virginia by providing Joni Maria Metcalf, 35, money and explicitly directing her as to which firearms to illegally purchase on their behalf.  Police in Washington, D.C. recovered one of the illegally purchased firearms from Thomas 11 days after it was straw purchased.

Previously, Chambers, also from Maryland, was sentenced to 9 months in prison for his role in this coordinated scheme to illegally straw purchase firearms.

Even convicted felons who take part in straw purchasing rings can end up with sentences that are far less than the ten year maximum.

Robert Joseph, a.k.a. Ruben Oakes, a convicted felon who conspired with, and directed, straw purchasers to obtain firearms that he would then deliver to a co-conspirator, Harold Gaines, in Maryland, was sentenced today in U.S. District Court here to 27 months in federal prison. United States Attorney Thomas T. Cullen and Ashan M. Benedict, Special Agent in Charge of ATF’s Washington Field Division made the announcement today.

Joseph, 51, previously pleaded guilty to conspiracy to illegally possess firearms and illegal possession of a firearm by a previously convicted felon. Harold Gaines, also previously pleaded guilty to one count of conspiracy to illegally possess firearms and was sentenced to 48 months in prison.

There’s no magic solution to prevent people from lying on the Form 4473 when they buy a gun, and proactively stopping straw purchases is a pipe dream. The real key is to disincentivize straw buys, and the best way to do that is to ensure that there are real consequences. We don’t need any new laws for that; just better enforcement, fewer plea deals, and a commitment to treat the crime seriously on the part of both state and federal prosecutors.