Rep. Schiff Introduces Legislation to Strengthen Penalties for Straw Purchases of Firearms

Washington, DC – Today, Rep. Adam Schiff (D-CA) introduced the Straw Purchaser Penalty Enhancement Act, which would create a new two-year sentence for certain “straw purchasers” of firearms. Straw purchasers in the United States are responsible for many of the illegal firearm transfers to the Mexican drug cartels. The limited federal penalties have provided prosecutors with little leverage in their efforts to tackle cartel violence. Schiff’s legislation would provide prosecutors with a new tool to go after the ringleaders of drug cartels and the gun smugglers that arm them.

“In my time as a federal prosecutor, I learned that one of the most important weapons in our arsenal was the ability to roll up lower-level defendants to get at those most responsible for gun violence,” said Schiff. “Current federal law, however, does not give prosecutors sufficient leverage against straw purchasers who are providing guns to drug cartels and gangs. Drug and gun violence has reached a dangerous level along the border and in Mexico. We know that the guns that drug cartels use to kill civilians and law enforcement officers are largely purchased in the United States. Yet we hamstring law enforcement by not giving them the tools they need to dismantle gun trafficking organizations. Straw purchasing is not a ‘paperwork’ violation – it’s a serious crime that has resulted in the deaths of thousands. My legislation would ensure we treat it as the threat to public safety that it is while helping to crack down on traffickers.”

Specifically, Schiff’s legislation would create a new two year penalty for a straw purchaser who intentionally deceives a gun dealer about the true identity of the gun’s purchaser. The sentence would be in addition to the penalty under existing law. The bill also requires that gun purchasers be notified when they buy a gun that lying about the true purchaser of a gun is a serious offense.

The Straw Purchaser Penalty Enhancement Act comes on the heels of the Congressional hearings into the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) sting operations dubbed “Fast and Furious.” In 2010, a federal operation allowed weapons from the United States to pass into the hands of suspected gun smugglers and cartel members so they could be traced to the ringleaders of Mexican drug cartels. During that operation, the ATF lost track of hundreds of weapons which have been linked to violent crimes both in the United States and Mexico, including the shooting of Border Patrol Agent Brian Terry in December 2010. During the hearings, Schiff raised concerns with the politicization of the investigation and encouraged legislators to turn their attention to the steady stream of guns pouring over our border.

During the “Fast and Furious” hearings, ATF agents testifying before the House Oversight Committee were not allowed to testify on how week U.S. gun laws were making it difficult for them to catch those smuggling assault weapons to drug cartels. As noted in one of their testimonies, the agents felt that the laws to prosecute these straw purchasers was “toothless.” Video from the hearing can be found here in which ATF Special Agent Peter Forcelli stated that “for somebody to testify against members of a cartel where the alternative is seeing a probation officer once a month, they will opt towards not cooperating with the law enforcement authorities.” This legislation would address their concerns. Groups from across the ideological spectrum have called for enhanced laws to prosecute gun trafficking, including Mayors Against Illegal Guns and the National Shooting Sports Foundation.