On Thursday, the Denver Post reported how Evan Ebel, the accused killer of Colorado prisons chief Tom Clements, used a straw purchaser to acquire the 9mm semiautomatic handgun used in the shooting.
Ebel, a white supremacist gang member, was a felon and thereby was barred under federal law from possessing a gun. Had he tried to go into a gun store a buy a gun, he would have failed the background check. So instead Ebel used the most common method criminals use to acquire firearms: a straw purchaser. In this case it is alleged that Stevie Marie Vigil, a 22-year-old woman, went in to High Plains Arms to buy a gun on Ebel’s behalf.
The pattern is remarkably similar to the Christmas Eve ambush-murder of two firefighters in Webster, NY. In that case, a 62-year-old felon named William H. Spengler allegedly relied on a neighbor, Dawn Nguyen, to buy the Bushmaster semiautomatic assault rifle he would use.
In 2009, I led a New York City undercover investigation of illegal gun sales at out-of-state gun shows than showed how easy it is to get away with even a blatant straw purchase – and how some licensed gun dealers are complicit in the practice. The following video, from a gun show in Tennessee, shows a gun dealer enabling an obvious straw purchase where the buyer gets “my friend over here to do some paperwork for me.”
The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives (ATF), has reported that straw purchasing is the single most common method by which guns get diverted from the legal market to the illegal market. An ATF study showed that fully 46% of guns related to illegal trafficking involved straw purchasers.
Criminals rely on straw purchases because it’s easy, it’s hard to get caught, and the penalties are light even when cases are brought.
It’s hard to get caught because under federal law, there are no background checks or record-keeping on gun transfers by unlicensed private sellers. That means it’s legal in most states to buy one gun or 10 and later sell them to someone else. It’s illegal to buy a gun with the intent of transferring immediately to someone else – but with no background checks, straw purchasers know they are very unlikely to be caught.
And, even if the straw purchaser is caught – which usually happens as in Colorado and Webster, NY after the gun was used in a prominent murder – the penalties are weak.
As Brad Beyersdorf, spokesman for the ATF Denver field division said speaking of the Ebel case, “There’s little-to-no punishment for being a straw purchaser. Gang members know it, drug trafficking organizations know it.”
What’s the solution? Simple: pass the gun bill that that is coming up for a vote in the Senate next month, which would require universal background checks and substantially raise the penalties for straw purchasers and gun traffickers.