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Identifying Straw Gun Buyers: 'Extremely, Extremely Difficult'

A 2022 federal law made the act of illicitly buying guns for someone else a crime called a straw purchase. The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives has identified straw purchases as among the most common firearms trafficking pathways. They’re also one of the hardest gun problems to solve. Most Americans live within 10 minutes of a gun store. The Los Angeles Times set out to determine whether easy availability is a key driver of gun violence. It’s not that simple. A series in the newspaper explores the complex relationship between firearm access and gun crime. U.S. civilians own an estimated 352 million firearms and demand for guns reached record levels in 2020, as measured by background check data.

The Times interviewed more than 100 people, obtained volumes of public records, reviewed thousands of pages of court filings and law enforcement records, and analyzed millions of rows of federal, state and local data. The analysis found that there’s a firearms dealer within a 10-minute drive of 88% of the U.S. population, and layers of regulations have not stemmed the flow of guns to criminals. When law enforcement agencies recover a gun, they can ask ATF to track its purchase history. These traces are a key tool to understand firearms trafficking patterns. Over the last decade, the number recovered and traced annually has steadily increased, and these guns are moving more quickly from store shelves to crime scenes In. 2021, law nforcement found guns traveled nearly twice as fast from stores to crimes relative to 2012.. In 2012, the average time was 11 years. By 2021, it fell to 6. Michael Eberhardt, former chief of the ATF’s firearms operations division, Most firearms used in crimes enter the market through licensed dealers. According to the ATF, a short amount of time from purchase to recovery can be an indication of gun trafficking. “Trying to identify straw purchases is extremely, extremely difficult,” said Rick Vasquez, who ran the ATF’s firearms trafficking and interdiction branch until 2014. For a straw purchaser, buying a gun is as easy as checking a box.


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