It’s Not Illegal To Buy a Gun for a Criminal

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Want to buy an AR-15 for a friend who happens to be in a Mexican drug cartel? The way gun laws stand right now, you can: It’s not illegal to purchase guns for a criminal. And federal laws surrounding gun trafficking across the border are notoriously weak. Legislation that Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) unveiled Wednesday would help fix that.

The Stop Illegal Trafficking in Firearms Act, co-sponsored by Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.), strengthens laws governing the “straw purchase” of firearms, or the buying of guns or ammunition for someone who is prohibited from owning one. Under current law, it is only a crime to transfer a firearm to someone else with the knowledge that the person will use it in a crime. So prosecutors usually cobble together “paperwork” violations such as lying on federal forms in order to bring charges against a straw purchaser. Leahy’s bill prohibits weapons transfers in which the transferor has “reasonable cause to believe” that the firearm will be used in criminal activity, and sets up heavy penalties for doing so.

The proposed bill would also make it a crime to smuggle firearms out of the United States. No, that law does not yet exist (there are laws addressing smuggling into the country.) Since 2006, more than 60,000 guns have moved from American gun dealers to Mexican cartels. ATF agent and “Fast and Furious” whistleblower John Dodson has called gun laws governing smuggling “toothless.”

“When the President spoke last week about the need for legislative action in the wake of the horrific events at Sandy Hook Elementary School last month, strengthening our law enforcement efforts against illegal gun trafficking was one of the key issues he noted,” said Leahy. “This bill will answer that call to action.” (If you’re worried this bill is a war on Christmas though, don’t fret. The bill contains exemptions for “the transfer of a firearm as a gift.”)

Leahy’s “modest measure” could “presage the sorts of legislative avenues that could find support among both Republicans and Democrats,” writes Jennifer Steinhauer at the New York Times The Caucus blog. Meanwhile, the proposed assault-weapons ban that Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Ca.) will roll out Thursday likely will not face such a rosy reception. The two bills, Steinhauer notes, “underscore the tension among Senate Democrats over how to proceed with President Obama’s call for legislative measures to combat gun violence.”