How Big A Problem Are Straw Buys, Anyway?

Steve Helber

Following the revelation of a Minnesota woman straw buying dozens of firearms, there seems to be a lot of talk about straw buys. To be sure, it’s one method criminals use to obtain a firearm when they can’t buy one lawfully. However, is it a significant problem?

To hear anti-gunners talk, it’s a massive issue that needs to be addressed and addressed right now. It’s apparently bad enough that San Jose is trying to take steps to address it. Yet, while talking about it, there’s an interesting nugget of information worth talking about.

San Jose will be one of the few cities in the nation to require gun shops to record firearm purchases after a unanimous late-night vote Tuesday.

The new rules will seek to prevent so-called “straw purchases,” or a firearm purchase where someone buys a gun and passes it off to someone else who should not own a weapon.

There have been 30,000 such purchases in the U.S. in the past year according to the Giffords Law Center, though it is unclear how many happened in San Jose.

“We know a significant number of crooks and gangs get firearms through straw purchasing,” said Mayor Sam Liccardo. “This set of ordinances is really focused on narrowing the flow of guns to those which are clearly legal, and hopefully doing something to deter the flow of guns that are unlawful to own.”

But do they?

First, what Giffords says is that there were 30,000 attempted straw purchases each year. That doesn’t mean they were all successful. Gun sellers can often determine if someone is trying to buy a firearm for someone else and will refuse to make the sale. It’s impossible to tell just how many of these 30,000 attempts fail, but it’s unlikely that they all are successful.

Yet, for the sake of argument, let’s assume that’s accurate.

First, let’s look at the total number of gun sales for 2020. According to the National Shooting Sports Foundation, more than 21 million background checks were conducted for firearm sales last year. When compared to the reported number of straw purchases, we’re looking at something that’s a tiny fraction of one percent of all firearm sales.

Undoubtedly, gun control advocates would suggest that it doesn’t really matter since straw buys lead to guns in criminal hands, thus facilitating gun crime.

Well, maybe, but I’m still going to argue that it’s a statistically small number compared to the total number of guns in criminal hands.

According to the Center for American Progress, a liberal think-tank, between the years 2012 and 2017, over 1.8 million firearms were stolen in the United States. Based on Giffords’ numbers, that matches up with 150,000 straw buy guns, or just over 8 percent of firearms that were likely to end up in criminal hands.

While it’s one thing to continue enforcement of rules regarding straw buys, let’s also recognize this as a fairly insignificant contributor to violent crime. If every single firearm-related murder in the US was committed by someone using a gun obtained through this kind of fraudulent purchase, then maybe it would be time to consider focusing our attention there.

That’s not the case, though.

Instead, it seems to me that it would make more sense to crack down on illicit gun dealers as well as use various programs designed to prevent violent crime from ever happening. That would take more of a focus on actual criminals and on trying to prevent crime from ever happening in a broad enough way that it’ll likely produce meaningful results.

Straw buys, as much as we all talk about them, are a drop in the bucket and probably not the best place to focus so much of our attention. Prosecute them when found, of course, but stop trying to pretend they’re the real issue.