SCOTUS Cracks Down on Straw Purchases of Guns

In a 5-4 decision on Monday, the Supreme Court made it clear that straw purchases of guns are absolutely illegal. Straw purchases, when the person buying a gun at a store purchases it for another party, has been linked to the illicit trafficking of guns. Obviously most criminals with a record can’t pass a background check, so they send in a straw purchaser who will pass the background check for them and get them the gun.

In the particular case before the Supreme Court, a police officer was using his police discount to buy a handgun for a relative, who was also a legal gun purchaser. The Supreme Court insisted that it doesn’t matter if the final buyer of the gun could pass a background check—the law forbidding straw purchases must be upheld. Otherwise, loopholes would render background checks and registration entirely useless and law enforcement officials would have no way to connect gun crimes to the people who bought the guns.

But this crackdown on straw purchases has a big loophole. In many states, it is not illegal for a private citizen to sell his gun to another private citizen without any background check or even notification to law enforcement. Some states are obviously more strict about these laws than others. But federal gun law requires background checks for gun purchases at public retailers, and according to the Supreme Court, the person who submits to the background check must apparently be the terminal owner of the gun.

That really makes no sense. If I buy a gun, and then sell it to another person (after checking for state ID or whatever), I don’t even have to report that to the civil government in most states. If the gun I sell is involved in a crime, the police might show up at my house (since I was the last registered owner), but all I would have to say is that I sold the gun and chose not to report the sale. I could voluntarily give information about the person I sold it to if I wanted (and I probably would), but this scenario makes it clear that so-called straw purchases are effectively legal in most states, as long as you leave a certified gun retailer out of the loop.

Honestly, the Supreme Court decision is really weak. If anything, it will encourage those who want guns for criminal purposes to maintain private avenues for purchase. And these private avenues, at least in most states, are not illegal. Basically, the Supreme Court has just ensured that the only people who will be harassed about straw purchases have no intention of ever using guns to commit crimes. And those who do want to commit crimes with guns will be even less likely to be registered with certified gun dealers. Congratulations, SCOTUS. Yet another useless hair-splitting decision that looks good on paper and does nothing to reduce crime.