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. 

By , Staff writer

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    A bipartisan group of lawmakers, with the support of a law enforcement agencies, announce the introduction of a bill in the House of Representatives to make firearms trafficking a federal crime and impose stronger penalties for 'straw purchasers' who buy guns for convicted felons and others who are prohibited from buying guns on their own.
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Legislation to prohibit gun trafficking and so-called straw purchases of firearms has been one of the few concepts to achieve bipartisan traction on Capitol Hill in the wake of the Newtown, Conn., shooting – but lawmakers and advocates disagree on the necessity for new laws on the matter. 

Enter National Rifle Association President David Keene who, if he were to channel moviemaker Mel Brooks, might snarl something like this: "We don't need no stinking antitrafficking laws." But he's more well-mannered than that. Instead, he said at a recent breakfast with reporters that claims that the US government lacks such laws are "just flat-out not true."

Mr. Keene was making a counterpoint to an argument put forward by Sen. Patrick Leahy (D) of Vermont, who during a hearing on gun violence last week said “there's no federal law that makes it illegal to act as a straw purchaser of firearms.” 

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What to make of such conflicting statements? 

The truth is that the nation does have statutes outlawing gun trafficking, as well as related laws that can be used to prosecute so-called straw purchasers, i.e., eligible gun buyers who obtain a firearm for someone who is ineligible to buy one. 

However, many law enforcement officials – and a growing number of legislators from both parties – insist that existing laws are too frail and that a specific statute against straw purchasing is needed to give federal agents more legal firepower to crack down on gun trafficking.

Virtually all weapons recovered at crime scenes are purchased from licensed firearms dealers, according to the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF). Of firearms used in crime, 20 percent go from a licensed dealer to a crime scene in two years or less, according to an analysis by Mayors Against Illegal Guns. The man who in December ambushed firefighters in upstate New York as they responded to a blaze, killing two, was an ex-felon who had obtained weapons through a straw buyer, police have noted.

Of the gun legislation put forward since the school shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary in Newtown, measures to combat gun trafficking and straw purchases have drawn the widest bipartisan support. Sen. Charles Grassley (R) of Iowa said last week that he would work with Senator Leahy on the two gun issues. (Leahy has introduced legislation to do just that.) Meanwhile, Sens. Mark Kirk (R) of Illinois and Kirsten Gillibrand (D) of New York are sponsoring similar legislation. And on the House side, a bipartisan group of four lawmakers led by Reps. Elijah Cummings (D) of Maryland and Scott Rigell (R) of Virginia unveiled a similar bill on Tuesday.

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. 

“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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