Law & the Courts

America Should Be Prosecuting Straw Purchasers, Not Gun Dealers

(Scott Olson/Getty)

This week in Wisconsin, the Milwaukee County Circuit Court is hearing arguments in a lawsuit filed by two police officers, both of them shot in the head by a young man named Julius Burton back in 2009. The officers are suing the former owners of the defunct gun shop that sold the pistol Burton used to a straw purchaser, Jacob Collins. Burton was at the time too young to legally purchase a handgun.

Like many other jurisdictions, Wisconsin doesn’t really take straw purchases of firearms very seriously. At the time of Collins’s crime, the offense was only a misdemeanor. (Subsequent legislation has upgraded straw purchasing to a low-level felony.) The crime was, and is, seldom prosecuted, and, before the Burton-Collins incident, offenders would “typically get probation or less than a year in prison because of their clean records and the notion they have not committed a violent crime, according to a review of five years of federal court records,” as the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reported in 2010.

Wisconsin isn’t alone in its nonchalance. California normally treats straw purchases as misdemeanors or minor infractions. Even as the people of Baltimore suffer horrific levels of violence, Maryland classifies the crime as a misdemeanor, too. Straw buying is a felony in progressive Connecticut, albeit one in the second-least-serious order of felonies. It is classified as a serious crime in Illinois (Class 2 felony), but police rarely (meaning “almost never”) go after the nephews and girlfriends with clean records who provide Chicago’s diverse and sundry gangsters with their weapons. In Delaware, it’s a Class F felony, like forging a check. In Oregon, it’s a misdemeanor.

RELATED: What Gun-Control Advocates Mean but Dare Not Say: Guns Should be Confiscated

Uncle Stupid doesn’t take it that seriously either. Chicago Sun-Times, 2012:

The ATF office for the Northern District of Illinois had a decline in weapons prosecutions from fiscal year 2010 to 2011, and the trend was expected to continue the following year.

 . . . Over the past five years, meanwhile, prosecutors have shifted their strategy involving gun cases, according to records and interviews.

The U.S. attorney’s office is no longer prosecuting most locally based gun cases involving straw purchasing. Instead, federal prosecutors have been focusing on interstate gun-trafficking rings.

In the same article, retired ATF agent Mark Jones told the newspaper: “Firearms dealers are so well protected it makes it really hard to prosecute them.”

Well, when the going gets “really hard” . . . 

I visited Chicago a few years back to write about the city’s gang-driven murder problem, and a retired police official told me that the nature of the people making straw purchases — young relatives, girlfriends who may or may not have been facing the threat of physical violence, grandmothers, etc. — made prosecuting those cases unattractive. In most of those cases, the authorities emphatically should put the straw purchasers in prison for as long as possible. Throw a few gangsters’ grandmothers behind bars for 20 years and see if that gets anybody’s attention. In the case of the young women suborned into breaking the law, that should be just another charge to put on the main offender.

#share#The focus on gun shops isn’t about effective law enforcement; it’s about bureaucratic laziness: It’s a hell of a lot less work to lean on federally licensed retailers with fixed addresses and regular business hours than it is to go chasing Joe Gangster’s rap-sheet-free little brother all over Baltimore on a misdemeanor charge. In reality, the authorities do very little to counteract straw purchasing, because it is a difficult crime to prosecute — see Special Agent Jones and his “really hard” standard above — and nobody’s career gets made on a straw-purchase case.

The focus on gun shops isn’t about effective law enforcement; it’s about bureaucratic laziness.

If the evidence presented at trial is to be believed, the gun dealers in the Wisconsin case probably should have been charged with conspiracy. The ineligible buyer, Burton, walked in and pointed to the gun he wanted, telling his friend, “That’s the one.” Collins, whose lawyers say he is developmentally disabled, answered “No” to the question on a federal purchase form inquiring as to whether he was buying the gun for himself. Somebody at the store helped him “correct” that. There is surveillance footage of the purchase. But, apparently, nobody at the prosecutor’s office, or at Barack Obama’s Department of Justice — firearms sales are federally regulated — has the energy to file a charge on that.

RELATED: Liberals, What Law Would You Pass That Could Stop These Shootings?

Trials lawyers have lots of energy, though, especially when there’s somebody with lots of money: Never mind Bob’s Shotgun Emporium and Bait Shop in East Donkey, Ark. — this is about Remington/Freedom, Sturm Ruger, Smith & Wesson, and other big companies with big bank accounts. Democrats and their trial-lawyer supporters are looking for a way to claim a victory on gun control and get paid at the same time.

#related#Thus, there is a movement under way to shift the responsibility for criminal violence away from criminals and onto third parties that are easier to police and blessed with much deeper pockets. Gun dealers are only the beginning of that: The real prize is firearms manufacturers. The ridiculous writing being plainly visible in every way, prudent legislation was passed in 2005 partly shielding firearms makers from wide-ranging liability lawsuits holding them responsible for violent crime. Among the people who voted in favor of that bill was Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont, no doubt keenly aware of the historical prominence of firearms makers in New England. Vermont, it bears noting, has basically no gun laws — you don’t need a permit, or even to be a U.S. citizen, to carry a concealed handgun, or to wear one openly on your hip — and basically no violent crime, either, which throws a monkey wrench or three into the popular progressive model of correlation touching those questions. But Sanders, despite being well positioned to know better, has suddenly evolved on the issue, which probably has something to do with the fact that the daft old moonbat really thinks he can be elected president of these United States.

Meanwhile, a few U.S. ZIP codes, practically all of them represented by Democrats, are plagued by violent criminals brandishing firearms, and nobody in power is willing to lift a pinky finger to do anything meaningful about it. Why?

“It’s really hard.”

Straw purchasing is a serious crime. Maybe it is time that the good people of Maryland, Illinois, California, Connecticut, the U.S. Justice Department, etc., started treating it like one.

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