There actually isn't a law on the books making "straw purchases" -- where an individual buys a gun for someone who isn't supposed to have one -- illegal. Instead, alleged straw purchases are usually brought up on so-called "paper violations" for "engaging in a firearms business without a license." Those violations don't carry very strict sentences and ATF agents say federal prosecutors are sometimes hesitant to bring such charges.
Democrats in the House want to fix that. On Friday, Reps. Carolyn B. Maloney (D-NY), Elijah Cummings (D-MD) and Carolyn McCarthy (D-NY) introduced legislation titled the "Stop Gun Trafficking and Strengthen Law Enforcement Act" which would create a dedicated firearms trafficking statute.
"This legislation would fill a major gap in the U.S. criminal code: there is no dedicated
statute prohibiting firearms trafficking," Cummings wrote in a 'Dear Colleague' letter.
"We have to move beyond the all-or-nothing rhetoric of the current gun debate and work toward common-sense measures to help our law enforcement authorities combat the Mexican drug cartels without infringing on anyone's right to own a firearm," Cummings said in a statement. "That's exactly what this bill does."
"This legislation gives law enforcement the tools they need to do their job," Maloney said in a statement. "It prohibits the transfer of a gun when an individual knows the gun will be transferred to a person who is prohibited by law from carrying a gun or to a person who intends to use the gun illegally. This is a sensible solution to a severe problem and will ensure that weapons do not end up in the hands of criminals-- and drug cartels-- by specifically prohibiting firearms trafficking in the criminal code."
The letter quotes from testimony that ATF director Ken Melson gave to House Oversight Committee investigators probing "Project Gunrunner" and "Fast and Furious."
"If you can actually charge someone with actually firearms trafficking, we have never been able to do that," ATF director Ken Melson told investigators.
"We say it all the time, that we are locking up firearms traffickers but really what we are locking up are people who lie on a Federal form or people who deal without a license, if there were a license, it wouldn't be illegal," Melson said. "So I think a firearms trafficking statute would be most helpful, coupled with some sentencing guidelines along with that."
With Republicans in control of the House, and with opposition from the National Rifle Association, the bill is a long shot.
The NRA, whose fundraising capabilities rest on convincing their donors that Barack Obama wants to take away their guns despite the administration's relative silence on politically sensitive gun issues, have backed an amendment that House Republicans placed in an appropriations bill which banned ATF from requiring gun dealers in four border states to report when they sell multiple weapons to an individual within five business days. They've announced their intent to sue the administration for requiring gun dealers -- who already have to report multiple sales of hand guns -- to report on multiple sales of "long guns" as well.
Meanwhile, House Oversight Committee Chairman Darrell Issa (R-CA) and Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) are pushing the FBI and the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) for documents on what those agencies knew about Operation Fast and Furious.
Grassley and Issa, in a letter to FBI Director Robert Mueller, ask about claims that an apparent FBI informant "might have been in communication with, and was perhaps even conspiring with, at least one suspect whom ATF was monitoring." They asked DEA Administrator Michelle Leonhart for a briefing by DEA staff and an account of "the number of informants or cooperating informants handled by other agencies identified in the course of any investigations related to Operation Fast and Furious."