Study: Gun Retailers Rarely Report Illegal Purchase Attempts

Most stores routinely have to deal with surrogate gun purchasers.

A young woman looks at a shotgun to purchase for home protection in Salt Lake City, Utah, Jan. 15, 2013.
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Gun retailers rarely notify law enforcement if they think a customer is trying to buy a gun illegally, according to a new survey by researchers at the University of California, Davis.

In a survey of 591 gun retailers and pawn shop owners, 59 reported they had at least one potential customer who they believed was trying to make a "straw purchase"—purchasing a gun for another person who may not be able to buy one legally. Though most stores said it had refused the sale, just 12 percent of those dealers said they notified law enforcement. Overall, two thirds of gun retailers said they had experienced an attempted straw purchase over the past year.

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Garen Wintemute, lead author of the study, published in the journal Injury Prevention Monday, says that the number of stores who reported regularly having to turn away customers is surprising, but he isn't surprised by how few report the incidents to the police.

"I think it's common human behavior—if we see a crime, we might act to prevent it, but a lot of times we don't act to call the police," he says. "The retailers see turning them away as taking care of the problem."

A current national campaign to discourage straw sales is called "Don't Lie for the Other Guy,"—straw buyers who are found guilty can be put in jail for up to 10 years. Wintemute says that the campaign might be more effective if it was changed to emphasize the potential punishment.

"You see 'Don't Lie for the Other Guy' posters—but maybe they should be modified to add 'If you try to do a straw purchase, we'll turn you in,'" he says.

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Wintemute says that gun retailers are trained by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives to recognize straw purchasers, who often know very little about firearms and sometimes go to gun shows with "shopping lists" of guns.

The survey also found that a quarter of gun stores and pawn shops that sell guns had been robbed at least once duringthe past five years, a move that "automatically puts guns in the criminal market from that moment forward," he says.

Survey respondents overwhelmingly supported stricter penalties for retailers who they believe might be involved in trafficking guns—when asked what the appropriate punishment for a seller who is suspected of selling 50 guns illegally should be, respondents said the retailer should be jailed for 10 years and fined $50,000.

"The vast majority of retailers are honest businesspeople who are trying to make a living selling a product," Wintemute says. "I think they're an under used resource for policymakers, a group that's not heard from often enough. The vast majority has no interest whatsoever in supplying guns to criminals."

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