As the numbers of shootings and homicides have reached record heights in Philadelphia over several years, law enforcement officials across the region have warned about what they view as a notable contributor to the flood of illegal guns on the streets, the Philadelphia Inquirer reports. Straw purchasing is the term used when someone buys a gun and then gives or sells it to people barred from buying it themselves. The method is just one avenue by which firearms — millions of which are legally sold every year — can end up becoming crime guns. People also steal guns, buy them through illegal off-the-books sales on the streets, or build them through online ghost gun kits. To understand what drives the illegal straw purchasing market, the Inquirer reviewed more than 135 court cases from the last three years in which people were charged with gun trafficking or straw purchasing. Defendants typically faced charges including selling a gun to an ineligible person, providing false information about gun ownership, or making false statements during a purchase. That review, along with interviews and data analysis, showed that defendants were accused of trying to put nearly 900 guns into circulation — mostly handguns, plus at least two dozen assault rifles. At least a dozen of the weapons ended up in the hands of people who would go on to commit shootings and murders.
Police and prosecutors say an untold number of straw buyers get away with the crime, in part because of Pennsylvania’s lax gun laws. There is no limit to the number of weapons someone can buy, no mandate to report a gun lost or stolen, and no requirement for firearms dealers about how or when to flag purchases as suspicious. Law enforcement officials and gun safety advocates say regulations in place elsewhere could be put in place in Pennsylvania to reduce the risk of gun violence and safeguard citizens. “We take thousands of guns off [the streets], and we know that people are buying guns by the thousands,” said William Fritze, head of the Gun Violence Task Force in the Philadelphia District Attorney’s Office. “You’d need a massive amount of investigation power in order to do something … to see how many guns are actually going on the street that are straw purchases and are causing violence.” Federal rules can pose barriers for authorities. One example: Federal law requires dealers to report sales of more than two firearms to one buyer in a five-day period to the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives. Straw buyers can easily evade that measure by shopping at multiple stores. Philadelphia officials for decades have tried to pass local gun laws, such as limits on monthly handgun purchases. Gun rights groups, including the National Rifle Association, have challenged those efforts through lawsuits, and state courts have routinely ruled against the city, often citing the concept of preemption, which bans local governments from passing regulations that are stricter than state laws.