Public Release: 

Prosecuting background check and straw purchase violations depends on state laws

Study examined prosecutions following tougher sentencing for 'straw arm' purchases in Pennsylvania and a Maryland court decision that redefined private firearm transfers

Johns Hopkins University Bloomberg School of Public Health

A new study from the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health found that prosecutions in Pennsylvania for violating the state's straw purchase law increased by nearly 16 times following the 2012 passage of a law requiring a mandatory minimum five-year sentence for individuals convicted of multiple straw purchase violations. So-called straw purchases involve a prohibited person, such as someone with a criminal record, enlisting the aid of another person to buy the firearm on their behalf.

In Maryland, prosecutions for background check violations decreased by nearly half following the 2006 Chow v. State of Maryland decision that concluded that temporary gratuitous loans of firearms, where no money changed hands, were not 'transfers.' Following this decision, state prosecutors had to prove that a firearm recovered from someone other than the registered purchaser had been permanently transferred, not merely loaned.

Federal law only requires a firearm purchaser to pass a background check when the firearm is purchased from a federally licensed gun dealer. Comprehensive background check (CBC) policies extend background check and recordkeeping requirements to transfers by private, unlicensed sellers to screen out prohibited purchasers. As of September 2017, up to nineteen states, including Maryland and Pennsylvania, and the District of Columbia have CBC laws requiring a background check when a handgun is transferred.

Federal law also prohibits straw purchases; however, federal prosecution of straw purchasers is extremely rare. Much like background check laws, some states have enacted their own laws regarding straw purchases.

This new research, published online in Injury Prevention, was a collaboration between researchers with the Johns Hopkins Center for Gun Policy and Research, which is based at the Bloomberg School, and the University of California, Davis Violence Prevention Research Program. It is believed to be the first study to assess enforcement of state laws related to the private transfer of firearms.

For their study, the researchers looked at prosecutions in state courts in Pennsylvania from 2006-2015 and in Maryland from 1996-2014.

"The impact of comprehensive background check and straw purchase laws depend on proper implementation and sufficient enforcement action against law violators," says Cassandra Crifasi, PhD, MPH, assistant professor with the Johns Hopkins Center for Gun Policy and Research and the paper's lead author. "Unfortunately, enforcement and implementation are two often overlooked components of gun safety legislation. Prosecutors' decisions to bring charges against law violators are going to be influenced by the magnitude of the penalty or the ease of getting a conviction."

Following the Chow v. State decision in Maryland, prosecutors had a more difficult time building a case against individuals suspected of violating the state's CBC law.

"It appears this decision led to fewer cases being pursued than would have been expected had the interpretation of the law not changed, as prosecutors may not take on cases they are likely to lose," says Crifasi. "By comparison, what happened in Pennsylvania shows that stronger penalties for violations increase the incentive for prosecutors to build cases against individuals suspected of engaging in multiple straw purchases. Policies that lead to more prosecutions of background check and straw purchase violations should be considered by lawmakers invested in reducing gun violence in their communities. "

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"Changes in the legal environment and enforcement of firearm transfer laws in Pennsylvania and Maryland" was written by Cassandra K. Crifasi, Molly Merrill-Francis, Daniel W. Webster, Garen J. Wintemute and Jon S. Vernick." All researchers are with the Johns Hopkins Center for Gun Policy and Research, with the exception of Dr. Wintemute, who is with the Violence Prevention Research Program, Department of Emergency Medicine, University of California, Davis.

Funding for the research came from the Joyce Foundation.

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