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Gun debate 101: Doesn't US already have laws against gun trafficking?

Congress is considering legislation to crack down on gun traffickers and so-called straw buyers. But the NRA says the Obama administration just needs to enforce laws already on the books. Here's what the record shows. 

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The existing statutes are clear: Knowingly transferring a firearm for use in a crime and providing false statements in an application to buy a firearm are both already federal crimes, with fines up to $250,000 and prison sentences up to 10 years. The argument against further legislation, marshalled by NRA chief Wayne LaPierre and others, is that those laws simply need to be enforced. 

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“We've said straw-man sales should be prosecuted for years. There are about six to eight statutes on the books right now,” Mr. Lapierre said in testimony before the Senate Judiciary Committee. “If someone is doing a straw-man sale, they should be prosecuted, absolutely.”
Testimony from an AFT agent in 2011, given to Democratic staff of the House Government Oversight Committee, seems to bear out the NRA view. On weapon prosecutions, “we don’t get traction with the US Attorney’s office, they don’t follow through, they don’t want to prosecute cases,” the agent said.

But the Obama administration has not presided over a precipitous decline in criminal firearm prosecutions, as LaPierre and some Republican lawmakers argue. Through 2011, nearly 12,000 people a year have been charged with firearms offenses during the Obama administration, according to statistics from the Executive Office of United States Attorneys – an annual rate about 500 prosecutions fewer than the average for the final four years of the Bush administration.

The problem, as Leahy and others see it, is that without a specific statute explicitly criminalizing straw purchases and stiffer penalties for both crimes, government prosecutors will continue to treat such offenses as paperwork infractions undeserving of prosecutorial resources.

During testimony in June 2011 before the House Government Oversight Committee, another ATF agent decried the “toothless” nature of existing laws. The Fraternal Order of Police, among many police groups that have argued for such legislation, said in a recent letter to Leahy that specific penalties for firearms trafficking “would greatly assist ATF agents during the investigation and prosecution process.”

ATF agents have also testified that slim penalties for gun traffickers make it difficult for federal agents to leverage weighty charges against smaller players in criminal enterprises – such as straw purchasers – in order to take down higher-ranking criminals. 

The bills circulating on the Hill would insert a new section of criminal code specifically addressing straw purchases and trafficking. In some cases, the potential jail sentence for trafficking and making straw purchases could more than double. Moreover, Leahy’s measure would direct the US Sentencing Commission to change its guidelines to ensure that individuals prosecuted under the new law would draw much stiffer penalties.

As bipartisan support for such measures grows, the political value of such legislation as a point of common ground between left and right becomes clear. Whereas "universal" background checks, another provision with broad political support on Capitol Hill, are criticized by the NRA and others for visiting bureaucracy on law-abiding citizens, the anti-gun-trafficking and straw-purchasing legislation applies only to criminals.  

“I’ve got a problem with people who break the law using firearms because it inevitably puts pressure on my rights,” said Representative Rigell, a lifelong NRA member and gun owner, on Tuesday. “And I think when we punish the bad guys, we are protecting the good guys.”


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