"A good first step"? Towards what?

In a huge editorial yesterday, the Philadelphia Inquirer claims that it wants to stop illegal gun purchases:

Criminals often get their handguns through an underground market that begins with a transaction called a straw purchase. It works this way:

A gun trafficker barred from buying firearms because of a criminal record finds a go-between (a "straw buyer") to buy handguns legally from a shop.


I think the Inquirer knows better than that. Straw purchases are already illegal. It is a major federal felony to buy a gun for someone else.

There is, simply, no way for a straw buyer to buy a gun legally for someone else. Why can't the Inquirer admit that? Instead, a difficult law enforcement issue is characterized as a "legal" loophole which needs to be closed:

The trafficker then sells those guns on the street, usually to people who also couldn't buy them legally.
Again, gun law after gun law after gun law is broken in the above scenario. There is no legal loophole.

Clamping down on straw purchases would stem the flow of illegal guns into the city.

A good first step would be to enact a state law limiting handgun purchases to one a month per buyer. But such bills routinely get blocked in Harrisburg by lawmakers who claim the limit would erode the rights of legal gun owners, would prevent decent people from defending themselves.

Here's a question: Shouldn't 12 handguns be enough for a suburban or rural family to fend off a potential attacker?

Legislators who ritually block all gun-control bills should make a sincere effort to understand the pain that illegal handguns cause on the streets of Philadelphia and other cities around Pennsylvania.

The issue is not whether 12 handguns are enough -- any more than the issue is whether 12 cars or 12 computers are enough. The Inquirer's claim that illegal firearms transfers will be stopped by limiting the number of legal transfers boils down to the logic that "gun crimes" are decreased by decreasing the number of guns. It makes about as much sense as trying to decrease auto theft or criminal transfers of automobiles by decreasing the number of cars an individual could purchase. Or decreasing computer crime by limiting the number of computers. Or decreasing diversion of legal drugs to the illegal market not by going after the illegal diverters but by limiting the number of pills a sick person can possess.

It is predicated on the idea that a thing -- not human conduct -- is intrinsically evil, as well as on the idea that criminals will be stopped by laws which will only be obeyed by law-abiding people.

Illegal transfers already being illegal, a restriction on the number of firearms that can be legally purchased will have no -- repeat no -- effect on illegal transfers. If you doubt me, put yourself in the position of an illegal gun dealer. As you most likely have a criminal record, you're not going to be eligible to buy even one gun a month, so the law won't affect you directly. (Straw purchases by others acting on the illegal dealer's behest are only one among many ways to obtain guns.) A change in the law would mean simply that the criminal dealer would have to:

  • use more straw purchasers, because each straw purchaser would be able to obtain only one per month;
  • obtain more stolen guns, either by stealing them or buying them from fences;
  • obtain the guns from another state.
  • All three of the above methods are, of course, already illegal. In fact, there is no way to legally buy guns in order to resell them!

    What the Inquirer does not point out is that it is already a crime to buy even one gun a month if the intention is to resell it! All they're trying to do with this latest change in the law is make them illegal to buy regardless of intent. That's because it requires too much investigatory police work to discern whether there is an intent to illegally resell the weapon, so the idea is that, hey, we'll just treat all gun buyers as an inherently suspect class.

    What is really too much for me is the Inquirer's lecture in "logic":

    . . .folks who are concerned about crime and are open-minded about solutions - and that's most people in Pennsylvania - never get to hear the logic of a handgun-limit law. It's drowned out by shouting from the gun lobby, which sees compromise as defeat.

    But citizens should expect state lawmakers to put reason and compromise ahead of the shouting of lobbyists.

    Lawmakers, good people throughout the state need you to put public safety first. Take this logical, limited approach to reducing gun violence.

    If the goal is to reduce the number of guns in the hands of the law abiding, why not just say so? Just please don't call illegal conduct legal, and then tell me that making legal conduct illegal is logical. It is not.

    Long term, I suppose it could be argued that limiting the number of guns which an individual could purchase might reduce the number of guns available for criminals to steal. But would it even do that? Let's assume you're a "gun nut" who enjoys collecting. The one-gun-a-month limit will force you to wait a month between each gun. That means that if you collect guns avidly, after five years your collection will have grown to 60 guns. Criminals who steal guns will not be limited by the one-gun rule. They won't come back to break into your house next month; they'll simply steal them all. Which means that the one-gun-a-month rule will have to be followed by a new "total number of guns" rule, and so on.

    Notice the Inquirer's "Shouldn't 12 handguns be enough for a suburban or rural family to fend off a potential attacker?" did not read, "Shouldn't 12 handguns per year be enough for a suburban or rural family to fend off a potential attacker?"

    And while I'm at it, what's this bit about "a suburban or rural family"? Are there no urban families who might need to fend off an attacker? (Seems to me the family of Rob Pierson could have used one. Or twelve.)

    The communitarian thinking that goes into this presupposes that it is someone else's business how many guns a law-abiding person owns. That we need to "keep track" as if the law abiding person is suspect.

    Jeff Soyer reviews the Inquirer editorial, and suggests going after the criminals instead:

    How about clamping down on criminals instead? You could start by going after the street gangs since that's the source of most gun crime in Philadelphia.

    See, I can go 11 months without purchasing a gun. In the 12th month, I go to a gun show with my savings and maybe I want to purchase 3 or 4 items while there since that's where the best deals and selection might be. Such a 1-per-month limit would prevent me (and others) from doing that. Or prevent me from bidding on a pair of dueling pistols since I'm not a "collector", etc.

    Don't curtail the rights of the majority (the law abiding) to attempt to thwart the minority (the criminals). Instead, just go after the people who have broken the laws.

    I agree with Jeff, of course.

    The problem is that the goal is to disarm the law abiding.

    And if we assume the Inquirer shares that goal, then limiting the number of guns is a good first step.

    posted by Eric on 05.16.06 at 09:49 AM


    Yeah, the Phinqy wants to make illegal guns sales illegal. About as much sense to it as any article about guns the Phinqy runs. The paper ran a bunch of anti-gun articles last year trying to gin up outrage over the ease at which criminals barred from gun ownership can get guns, and, once again, the Phinqy's conclusion was that it should be more difficult for non-criminals to buy guns.

    William Young   ·  May 16, 2006 11:58 AM

    Well said! As always.

    bryan   ·  May 16, 2006 8:49 PM


    Eric Scheie   ·  May 16, 2006 10:05 PM

    A straw purchase is NOT buying a gun for somebody else. That is entirely legal.

    A straw purchase is buying a gun for somebody who is not legally allowed to own firearms. That's illegal.

    anonymous   ·  May 20, 2006 7:15 PM

    My understanding of the law is that it is not legal to buy a gun for a felon (the example the Inquirer gave) under any circumstances. Nor is it legal to buy a gun for any other person using that person's money, because that would mean the other person the purchasor.

    It is legal in many states to buy a gun as a gift, however, provided the purchasor uses his own money. (But that is not a straw purchase, nor is it the subject of the article.)

    Discussion here:


    Eric Scheie   ·  May 20, 2006 8:40 PM

    Regarding gifts to others, PA law requires the same background check through a dealer as is performed on buyers -- the only exception being gifts within families:

    Handgun transfers between private individuals require a background check unless the exchange is between family members such as parent and child, grandparent and grandchild, or spouses.


    Unless you call buying a gun for a family member a straw purchase, straw purchases of the sort the Inquirer describes are already illegal.

    Eric Scheie   ·  May 21, 2006 8:54 AM

    Job well done.

    Loan   ·  May 25, 2006 4:34 AM

    i love ruins to ^)

    mihey   ·  May 28, 2006 5:24 PM

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