When transferring or purchasing a firearm, individuals must complete an ATF Form 4473. After providing personal information, question 21 – made up of 11 “yes” or “no” sub-questions – begins by asking “Are you the actual transferee/buyer of the firearm(s) listed on this form?” followed by a bold warning that firearms cannot be transferred if the individual completing the form is not the actual transferee/buyer. If question 21.a is answered “no” the transfer/sale will be FFL dealer denied. However, preventing a potential illegal firearm transfer is rarely this easy or straightforward.
One of the most prevalent forms of firearms trafficking are straw purchases. Defined as when an actual transferee/buyer of a firearm uses another individual to execute a Form 4473 as if they were the true firearm transferee/buyer, straw purchasers act as pawns for those who may be prohibited from possessing a firearm, unwilling to have their name associated with a firearm transaction or simply cannot afford a firearm to obtain one.
Unlike instances in which an individual incorrectly answers question 21.a, straw purchasers can generally complete a 4473 without denial and pass a NICS background check, making them extremely difficult to thwart for FFLs. However, learning how to identify straw purchases can help prevent such illegal firearm transactions.
Straw Purchase Indicators
Despite joint NSSF, ATF and DOJ efforts to curtail straw purchases with their “Don’t Lie For The Other Guy” campaign and the threat of imprisonment up to 10 years and a fine of up to $250,000 for committing a federal crime, straw purchases remain a threat to firearm dealers.
In 2011, a survey of 1,600 FFLs found over 67% of firearm dealers and pawnbrokers polled reported experiencing at least one straw purchase in the prior year. Applying that math across more than 60,000 active Type 01 and Type 02 FFLs today, one could estimate at least 40,000 straw purchase attempts occur annually.
To identify a straw purchase, one must first know the common red flags. Indicators of a straw purchase include, but are not limited to, the following prospective transferee/buyer behavior:
- Is accompanied by one or more individuals, including partners or family members
- Is accompanied by one or more individuals who then suddenly leave
- Is communicating with other individuals not present via phone, text or photos
- Has never purchased a firearm before
- Is uneducated about the firearm(s) being transferred/purchased
- Expresses no lawful purpose for the firearm(s) being transferred/purchased
- Expresses no interest in the firearm(s) being transferred/purchased
- Is buying multiple firearms, especially of the same or similar type/model
- Has purchased one or more firearms recently
- Is not paying for the firearm(s) themselves
- Acknowledges the firearm is for another individual and not a gift
How to Prevent Straw Purchases
Educate Your Staff
As an FFL retailer, your staff is the first line of defense against straw purchases. Teach your staff what a straw purchase is, the indicators and why it’s important to prevent them from happening. Procedures should also be set in place for when a staff member believes an individual may be attempting a straw purchase, including asking direct questions of the prospective transferee/buyer (e.g., “Is this firearm for you?”) and using a buddy system to get a second opinion.
Regularly role playing straw purchase scenarios are another great way for staff to practice identifying red flags and how to handle situations in which an individual is suspected of an attempted straw purchase.
Educate Your Customers
For over a decade, the NSSF, ATF and DOJ have partnered on a campaign against straw purchases called “Don’t Lie For The Other Guy.” Targeting both firearm retailers and their customers, the campaign uses signage and other materials to inform FFL staff of straw purchases and warn customers of their consequences. While simple, these displays are just another way to educate customers and deter potential straw purchasers in your gun store.
While no customer should be treated as a potential criminal upon walking through your FFL doors, staff members should always remain alert for suspicious people and activity. As related to straw purchases, staff should be cognizant of individuals who appear unnecessarily nervous or anxious, seem disinterested in the firearm(s) they’re transferring/purchasing, individuals leaving and re-entering the store multiple times, groups – including partners and family members – in which one or more individuals exit the conversation or leave the store, and individuals who pay for the firearm of someone else without acknowledging it is a bona fide gift.
When in doubt, staff members should ask direct questions of the suspected individual to elicit more information and make a more informed decision.
Empower Your Staff
No firearms dealer is obligated to complete a firearm transaction it deems may be illegal. If one or more staff members has reason to believe an individual is attempting a straw purchase at any point of a transfer/sale, empower them to deny or cancel the firearm transaction. After all, no sale is worth potentially being held liable for illegal activity committed using a firearm obtained via a straw purchase.
Anyone denied a firearm for a perceived straw purchase should be noted in your POS system or FFL records for future reference and local law enforcement and firearm dealers should be notified to prevent such occurrences elsewhere.
While there’s no single or 100% effective way of preventing straw purchases, understanding common indicators and preparing your FFL staff for potential scenarios are the best way to reduce illegal firearm transactions and firearm trafficking.
Contact Orchid today to learn about our FFL Protection Plans designed to keep your firearms business compliant, featuring employee training with access to Orchid FFL University™ courses, on-call compliance services from attorneys at FFL Law, ATF inspection support and more.