Senator John Cornyn (R-TX) called a new federal law cracking down on the illegal sale of weapons to criminals “a solution in search of a problem.” His colleagues on the Senate Judiciary Committee appear to agree, as all but one Republican voted against sending the bill out of committee.
But at least one group of gun enthusiasts doesn’t share the Senate Republican view of gun trafficking: the people who sell them.
The evidence for this claim comes from a new study by Professor Garen Wintemute at the University of California of Davis, provided to ThinkProgress by the author on Monday. Wintemute surveyed 591 federally licensed gun retailers and pawnbrokers, all of whom sold over fifty guns per year, and asked them a series of questions concerning their views on gun trafficking and its criminal punishment. Contrary to what one might expect, gun retailers favor significantly harsher penalties for individuals who serve as “straw purchasers” for traffickers or people prohibited from owning guns, as well as fellow retailers who knowingly sell to them:
Of these same respondents, 478 (88.0%) recommended a specific sentence for an individual convicted of buying 50 firearms for a trafficking operation. The median period of incarceration was again 10 years (IQR 5–20 years); the median fine was again $50 000 (IQR $10 000–$100 000). Median recommendations were unchanged for 382 (79.9%) respondents recommending both incarceration and a fine. Younger respondents recommended longer terms and larger fines for both retailers and buyers, and respondents with higher frequencies of attempted straw purchases and denied sales recommended larger fines…
Perhaps 5–10% of firearms trafficking operations involve illegal sales knowingly made by a retail licensee. Respondents saw this as a serious crime motivated by desire for personal gain that merited, when 50 guns were involved, a 10-year term of incarceration and a $100 000 fine. Current federal sentencing guidelines are more
lenient, recommending incarceration for at most 5.25–6.5 years in such cases and a fine of $12 500–$125 000.
While retailers recommend a ten year sentence for straw purchasers, current federal laws mean that they face somewhere between no jail time and five years. Together with their support for stricter penalties on crooked retailers, these findings suggest that the people who have the most experience with straw purchasers (roughly 70 percent of retailers reported an attempted straw purchase; 10 percent said it happened monthly) believe that we need to levy stronger criminal penalties against these types of criminals.
Wintemute’s findings also suggest that cracking down on straw purchasers and crooked retailers is a critical gun violence priority. Based on the responses, he was able to estimate “that the 9720 licensees in the 43 study states selling 50 or more firearms a year experienced 33,800 attempted straw purchases (range 28,500–43,600) and 37,000 attempted undocumented purchases (range 29,700–57,000) in the year prior to the survey.” “These findings are consistent,” Wintemute notes, “with criminal case evidence that diverting firearms into criminal markets, known as trafficking, is frequently accomplished through straw purchasing (46–51% of cases)…Undocumented purchases have repeatedly been recognised as important beyond their role in trafficking. They are the principal means by which prohibited persons and purchasers with criminal intent acquire firearms. This is true in large part because such purchases are made anonymously; no background checks are involved and no records are kept.”
Most experts believe that increased criminal penalties of the kind proposed in the federal law could help play a role in stanching the flow of guns from traffickers to criminals. According to Daniel Webster, director of the Johns Hopkins Center for Gun Policy and Research, “ATF agents and federal prosecutors are limited in their capacity to combat gun trafficking, because there are no specific statutes specifically defining gun trafficking and making it a federal crime.”