In Philadelphia, people over 21 who pass a state background check can purchase as many handguns at a time as they want to.
Researchers, activists, and law enforcement officials say this creates the opportunity for straw purchasing — a term that refers to people buying weapons, and selling them to others who aren’t allowed to have them, like those with a criminal record or underage people. Straw purchasing is a federal felony.
Last week, the City of Philadelphia announced it’s suing three firearms vendors that are accused of knowingly allowing these illegal sales in store. The lawsuit names Frank’s Gun Shop Double Tap Shooting Range and Delia’s Gun Shop in Northeast Philadelphia, and Tanner’s Sports Center in Bucks County.
“Their reckless business practices have resulted in the loss of life and many other preventable tragedies,” Renee Garcia, litigation chair at the City Law Department, said.
While conducting research for the lawsuit, the city was able to trace 150 crime guns back to these three shops, Garcia said.
The defendants’ legal representation for the case has not been named, and none of the three stores responded to requests for comment from WHYY News.
Law enforcement officials believe there are many more illegally trafficked guns in circulation that haven’t been discovered yet.
There have been 848 nonfatal and 222 fatal shootings in the city so far this year, according to data from the Office of the Controller.
There are signs that gun store owners and staff can look out for to tell whether someone is making a straw purchase, experts say. Those include customers who make bulk purchases, who buy the same firearm repeatedly, or who come in with another person who shops for the firearm but doesn’t fill out the form.
For the last two decades, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives has partnered with the National Shooting Sports Foundation, a firearm industry trade association with 20,000 members, to provide training on how to spot this crime.
“They’re really the first line of defense when it comes to stopping straw purchases,” said foundation spokesperson Mark Oliva. “Many times the retailer is alerting ATF to it.”
Their anti-straw purchasing messaging campaign, “Don’t Lie for the Other Guy,” rolled out in the Philadelphia area in June 2022 with billboards, radio spots, and in-store signs. The program is fully funded by the firearm industry.
Oliva said the group does support legal action against retailers when justified.
“The people committing the crimes are the ones who are falsifying the form,” he said. “If there are retailers who are assisting in that crime, they need to be held accountable.”
Retailers are allowed to withhold the sale of a firearm if they suspect a straw purchase.
Daniel Webster, a professor with the Johns Hopkins Center for Gun Violence Solutions, says whether a retailer decides to sell firearms to straw purchasers or not does impact the local gun supply.
“Some gun shops seem to be willing to either very intentionally engage in this sort of practice to expand their market, or they haven’t done their due diligence to care what was going on in their gun shop as long as they were making sales,” he said.
He also points out that tackling straw purchasing in a city is only a part of the gun supply problem — people who want guns but can’t legally own them can still steal them, get them from beyond city or state limits, or from online ghost gun vendors.
Everytown Law, a group that advocates for stronger firearms regulations nationally, is joining the city on the complaint. Their recent lawsuit against firearms vendors in Kansas City led to those businesses implementing policies to prevent straw purchasing, such as employee training, video recording of all sales, and a limit of one handgun purchase per person per month, according to Alla Lefkowitz, the group’s senior director of affirmative litigation.
Another defendant in that lawsuit received a notice of license revocation from the ATF, she said.
Targeting gun stores for allowing illegal sales has been successful in other cities. In Chicago, undercover police sting operations on specific gun dealers led to a 46% reduction in the supply of new guns to criminals, according to a 2006 study from Johns Hopkins University.
The same research team also documented an 82% reduction in how often guns from certain New York City shops were used in crime after law enforcement conducted sting operations there.
“Taking these kinds of legal actions with problematic gun dealers had a chilling effect on those problematic practices beyond the dealers who were sued,” Webster said. “The message is out there that we will test you. We will look to see if you are complying with the law. If you are not, you could face legal consequences.”
New Jersey is attempting to reduce straw purchasing by creating waiting periods between handgun purchases. Pennsylvania does not have such a policy, and Philly is prohibited from passing firearm legislation that’s stronger than what exists at the state level due to a preemption law.
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