November 20, 2018 (Click on headline to read full story) – When 19-year old Nikolas Cruz purchased his Smith & Wesson AR-15 semi-automatic rifle from Sunrise Tactical Supply in Coral Springs, Florida in February 2017 he passed a background check after filling out a federal form 4473 which swore that the information he provided was true and correct. Despite the fact that he had been diagnosed with some mental issues, he didn’t check the box that required him to admit to that condition. A year later, the former student at a Florida high school killed 17 other students in a mass shooting before surrendering himself to police.
In November 2017, 26-year old former Air Force member Devin Patrick Kelley killed 26 people with an AR-15 rifle in a church in Southerland Springs, Texas, before he was shot and killed by the church’s neighbor who also used his own AR-15 rifle. Kelley bought his rifle and several handguns from different licensed firearms retailers over a four-year period despite passing background checks. He had been given a bad conduct discharge from the Air Force after a domestic assault conviction on his wife. The Air Force failed to forward that information on to the FBI which, had that been done, would have prevented Kelley from legally buying a gun.
More recently in Thousand Oaks, California, a former Marine with anger issues, 28-year old Ian David Long killed 12 people and then himself at a western dance bar. His anger was known not just to his relatives but to friends who were concerned about his welfare and maybe even his post-discharge actions. His gun, a legally purchased .45 caliber Glock pistol, was used in his killing spree. To buy the gun, Long had to pass a background check.
As with so many mass shooting cases, the guns used were bought after the buyer filled out the 4473 background check form as required by law. That form is the only protection gun retailers have to prove that laws pertaining to the sale had been approved by federal authorities, thus retailers are protected from any legal prosecution of the law related to the background check and subsequent sale of guns. An exception, which has been found in many court cases whereby prosecutors seek legal redress against gun retailers, is the so-called “straw purchase.” That happens when a licensed firearms retailer services a customer, showing that prospective buyer whatever gun or guns in which the buyer has indicated an interest.
In case after case, a straw buyer – a person who might only say he/she is buying a firearm for him/her self but in truth is serving as a surrogate for someone else with a criminal record – can appear to be a legitimate (meaning “legal”) buyer, in which case, the retailer might raise suspicions over the pending sale. About the only defense a retailer has in such an event is to question the prospective buyer of the intended use of the firearm; for hunting, for self-protection, for sports shooting, etc. If the buyer is a straw step-in, they generally appear either nervous, overly inquisitive, or uninformed. That’s when the mental bells go off in the retailer’s head that says “this is a scam.” Basically, that’s all the retailer has to go on, yet he or she may be among the first to get blamed for selling the firearm.
Small to large gun retailers feel like they’re walking a tightrope when a person they don’t already know approaches the gun display case. But they’re not the only sellers who will get blamed. Large retailers like Walmart have also had their share of issues related to straw purchases of guns to the extent that they have removed some guns from their inventory – primarily AR-style rifles and some handguns – and all but watched as regular Walmart gun shoppers take that portion of their business elsewhere.
What needs to be done to intercept straw buyers? From the view of the gun control faction, the ideal would be to eliminate guns altogether from American society. But that won’t happen thanks to constitutionally guaranteed rights, and the fact that there are millions of guns in American circulation to realistically consider total confiscation.
Gun control advocates like the Brady Campaign To Prevent Gun Violence have found some success in the pursuit of a very few sellers to whom they refer as “Bad Apple” gun dealers. Jon Lowy represents the Brady group and has had some success over the past couple of decades taking some retailers to court. He hits on the retailer who may be too busy to ask the simple questions about the intended use of a gun in which a buyer is interested.
“Most people agree that a gun dealer can and should sell guns responsibly,” he said. “And I’ve seen that in conservative jurisdictions. I’ve seen it in focus groups, and I’ve seen it more now than I did 20 years ago when I began this work because I think people recognize that everyone has some role to play to keep us safe.”
Similarly, “Don’t Lie for the Other Guy” is a campaign from the National Shooting Sports Foundation (NSSF) in cooperation with the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) as part of an ongoing effort to help prevent illegal “straw” purchases of firearms.
“Our goal is to keep firearms from people who are prohibited by law from possessing them,” says Mark Oliva, NSSF public affairs manager. “So we try to make sure that people understand that if you’re going to buy a firearm for someone who is not allowed to buy it for themselves, you’re risking 10 years in a jail and a $250,000 fine.”