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Leahy Unveils Legislation to Combat Illegal Straw Purchasing and Firearms Trafficking

Press Release

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Location: Washington, DC

U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) introduced legislation Tuesday, the first day that bills can be introduced in the Senate in the new 113th Congress, that aims to combat the practice of straw purchasing and illegal trafficking in firearms.

The Stop Illegal Trafficking in Firearms Act of 2013 provides law enforcement officials with the tools they need to investigate and prosecute the all-too-common practice of straw purchasing, where an individual buys a firearm for someone else who is prohibited from obtaining one on their own. The measure, cosponsored by Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.), specifically prohibits the straw purchase of firearms and strengthens the law prohibiting material false statements when purchasing a firearm. The bill establishes tough penalties for anyone who purchases a firearm or ammunition with the intent to transfer it to someone else, particularly in cases involving crimes of violence or drug trafficking, and expands existing trafficking law to make it a crime for an individual to smuggle firearms out of the United States.

Leahy said, "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. This bill will answer that call to action."

The Judiciary Committee next week will hold its first hearing of the 113th Congress on gun violence. Lawmakers are expected to hear testimony from a wide range of experts during that hearing and discuss various legislative proposals to stop the kind of tragic gun violence that recently struck Newtown, Conn., and Sandy Hook Elementary School.

"The provisions laid out in this legislation are focused, commonsense remedies to the very real problem of firearms trafficking and straw purchasing," Leahy said. "As the Senate seeks a way forward to find national solutions to reduce gun violence, I hope Senators from across the political spectrum can work together to find common ground on solutions like this."

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Statement of Senator Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.),
Chairman, Senate Judiciary Committee,
On the Introduction of the "Stop Illegal Trafficking in Firearms Act of 2013"
January 22, 2013

Today I am introducing legislation directed at combating the practice of straw purchasing and illegal trafficking in firearms. I thank the law enforcement partners who have contributed ideas and Senator Durbin for joining me in this effort. I hope that as Senators become familiar with the proposal, they will see it as a focused approach to provide law enforcement officials with the tools they need to go after those who engage in the illegal trafficking. This commonsense measure deserves the bipartisan support that will be critical to any effort in the Senate to reduce gun violence in America.

I have heard again and again from Senators on both sides of the aisle that keeping guns away from those who should not have them is a goal worthy of pursuing. This bill will further that goal. 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. This bill will answer that call to action.

On January 30, 2013, the Senate Judiciary Committee will hold the first hearing of the 113th Congress on the issue of gun violence. I expect that part of that discussion will include examining various legislative proposals Senators have put forward. It is my hope that as the Committee proceeds we can find areas of common ground.

There is now broad recognition that the Second Amendment guarantees the individual right to own a firearm, and that self-protection is an essential part of that right. To the extent there used to be a backdrop of uncertainty about the meaning of the Second Amendment, that time is past. The Supreme Court has confirmed the individual right guaranteed by the Second Amendment. That is no longer at issue. So we can proceed now in this discussion with security about Americans' constitutional rights.

In addition, there should be broad agreement that keeping guns away from those suffering from mental illness and criminals is the right thing to do. I believe that we can enact common sense protections consistent with the Second Amendment.

Law enforcement officials have complained for years that they lack the legal tools necessary to effectively combat illegal firearms trafficking. Congressional inquiry during the last Congress should have put a spotlight on the very difficult legal environment within which law enforcement officials currently operate. In fact, one of the whistleblowers who testified about the misguided tactics used by Federal law enforcement in firearms trafficking investigations in Arizona described the current laws as "toothless." My hope is that Congress will now respond with legislation that will help law enforcement do the job more effectively. The bill we introduce today should advance that goal.

The Stop Illegal Trafficking in Firearms Act will make important changes to Federal firearms statutes to give law enforcement officials the tools they need to investigate and prosecute the all-too-common practice of straw purchasing and illegal trafficking of firearms. This practice typically involves a person who is not prohibited by Federal law purchasing a firearm on behalf of a prohibited person, or at the direction of a drug trafficking or other criminal organization. It is a problem that must be addressed. It not only results in the support of larger criminal organizations, but also in the proliferation of illegal firearms and gun violence in our communities. This makes our citizens and communities less safe. The current state of the law puts both law enforcement officials and law abiding firearms dealers in a very difficult position. We can do better.

Under current law, there is no specific statute that makes it illegal to act as a straw purchaser of firearms. Nor is there a law directly on point to address the illegal trafficking of firearms. As a result, prosecutors must cobble together charges against a straw purchaser using so-called "paperwork" violations such as lying on a Federal form. These laws are imperfect, and do not give prosecutors the leverage needed to encourage straw buyers, often the lowest rungs on a ladder in a criminal enterprise, to provide the information needed for investigators and prosecutors to go after those directing and profiting from such activity.

The bill I introduce today will add a new provision to our Federal criminal code to specifically prohibit serving as a straw purchaser of firearms, and establishes tough penalties for those who purchase firearms for, on behalf of, or with the intent to transfer the firearms to someone prohibited from making that purchase directly. Under current law, it is a crime to transfer a firearm to another with the knowledge that the firearm will be used in criminal activity. This bill would strengthen this existing law by prohibiting such a transfer where the transferor has "reasonable cause to believe" that the firearm will be used in relation to criminal activity. The bill does contain important exemptions from the prohibition, namely, the transfer of a firearm as a gift, or in relation to a legitimate raffle, auction or contest.

And this bill will complement existing law that makes it a crime to smuggle firearms into the United States by specifically prohibiting the smuggling of firearms out of the United States.

The provisions laid out in this legislation are focused, commonsense remedies to the very real problem of firearms trafficking and straw purchasing. The bill does not affect Federal firearms licensees, and in no way alters their rights and responsibilities as sellers of a lawful commodity.

As the Senate seeks a way forward to find national solutions to reduce gun violence, I hope Senators from across the political spectrum can work together to find common ground. We have a responsibility and a duty to refine our laws consistent with the rights guaranteed by the Second Amendment. As Chairman of the Judiciary Committee, a Senator, a Vermonter, an American, a father and a grandfather, I am prepared to hear all ideas, listen to all views, and work with Senators from both sides of the aisle.


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