The “Straw Purchaser,” Diverting Firearms from the Lawful Stream of Commerce

For months, we’ve been listening to a debate around “legal gun owners” and “lawful gun activity” as differentiated from “criminals” and “illegal gun use.”

Is it really as black and white as two opposing groups and how they handle firearms?

In researching this question, we came across a November 2012 report by the Congressional Research Service.  Among its many citations, was one to a 2008 Rand study that concluded “almost all illegal firearms used criminally in the United States were diverted at some point from legal channels of commerce.” (19-20)  The CRS report characterized gun trafficking as that “diversion” of a legal firearms transaction into an illegal firearms transaction. (9)

Just how this diversion occurred was described by CRS to include these five examples:

  • straw purchases;
  • corrupted FFL gun dealers trafficking in firearms;
  • unlicensed dealers trafficking in firearms;
  • unlicensed persons trafficking in secondhand firearms; and,
  • stolen firearms.

For this blog, we’ll focus on the so-called “straw purchase.”  In part two of this blog, we’ll cover “firearms trafficking.”

When you’re looking for legal definitions, including the definition of the “straw purchaser,” the place to start is the ATF “Federal Firearms Regulations Reference Guide (2005).”  This ATF resource is a compendium of federal firearms laws and regulations for manufacturers, importers, and distributors of firearms and ammunition.  

In the Reference Guide under “General Information,” the ATF includes a 1-page section on “Straw Purchases,” including this definition: “Specifically, the actual buyer uses the straw purchaser to execute the Form 4473 purporting to show that the straw purchaser is the actual purchaser of the firearm.” (166)  

The violation of the Gun Control Act of 1968 and associated regulations occurs when the straw purchaser makes false statements on Form 4473.  The actual purchaser who uses a straw purchaser is unlawfully aiding and abetting or causing the making of a false statement.  And, if the licensee is aware of the false statements being made on Form 4473, the licensee is also violating federal law.

Keep in mind that the straw purchase is illegal even if both the straw purchaser and the actual purchaser could each lawfully purchase, own, and possess the firearm in the transaction.  Form 4473 should be filled out only by the person who is buying the firearm for his or her own use.  Anyone short of the actual person who will be taking physical possession of the firearm upon purchase becomes a straw purchaser with the exception of a person making a purchase for a bona fide gift to a third party.

Engaging in a straw purchase can be punishable by a statutory maximum term of ten years in prison.