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Gun Store Employees and Straw Purchases

Understanding Gun Store Employees and Straw Purchases

An Empirical Approach 


America undeniably has a gun problem. The United States has the highest rate of firearm suicide and homicide among industrialized countries, with an estimated 34,000 gun deaths per year (Kaplan & Geling). Despite the media focus on mass shootings and semi-automatic weapons, the gun problem is, according to Andrew Winkler, “a suicide problem and a gang problem” (Winkler 28). Sociological data backs up this claim: young African-American males between represent the largest category of homicide victims (Perkins), and most victims are killed by people with similar demographic characteristics (Cook). Gun violence tends to occur between gang related networks (Papachristos and Meares), and these networks have a localized monopoly over crime: in Boston, only 8% of the streets represent 66% of street robberies. (Braga, Papachristos & Hureau).

But how do criminals get guns? In an instructional pamphlet about straw purchases, Mayors Against Illegal Guns quotes a former Miami gang member, saying, “straw purchases are so easy it’s a no-brainer. Why buy a hot gun on the street when you can easily do a straw purchase?” (MAIG, Inside Straw Purchases). Straw purchases, ones in which a person buys a gun for someone else who could not or would not buy it on their own, are one of the main ways criminals get guns. Studies done by Sheley and Wright (1995) and Wright and Rossi (1994) found that around 20 percent of male prisoners had purchased their most recent handgun from a retail outlet, and between 30 and 40 percent had received it from family or friends (Braga, Papachristos & Hureau). Similarly, ATF tracking data shows that 46 percent of tracking investigations from July 1996 to December 1998 involved a straw purchaser (MAIG, Inside Straw Purchases). While the effectiveness of supply-side gun regulation on gun crime is up for debate, cracking down on straw purchases could be an important step in limiting the number of guns, and specifically handguns, that reach criminal hands.[1]

Sorenson and Vittes found that over half of the handgun dealers interviewed expressed willingness to sell a handgun to a customer who was buying for a girl/boyfriend “because s/he needs it,” a scenario that is classified as an illegal straw purchase.[2] When Braga describes the supply of firearms into criminal hands, he blames “scofflaw” dealers (Braga & Cook). Granted, the ATF has found that “a small group of dealers accounts for a disproportionately large number of crime gun traces.” (Mayors Against Illegal Guns, Inside Straw Purchases). However, it is so far unclear, in the case of straw purchases, whether sellers are acting out of true malice or are just ignorance. Gun store employees are not required to have a Federal Firearms License, nor are they held to the same licensing procedure, and most importantly, they might not necessarily be more qualified or knowledgeable about straw purchases than the average citizen.[3]  Thus, this study aims to determine whether straw purchases are the result of an employee’s lack of knowledge or confidence in the ability to spot straw purchasers or simply a disregard for the law. The results would have different implications on the supply-side controls: if sellers are simply unsure of the law or unaware of how to spot straw purchases, the operative solution is to educate. However, if sellers are aware of the law and still willing to go through with the sale, stricter regulation would be more effective.

Gun store employees are best suited to answer these questions, as they are the ones making the sales. Current gun store employees would give a more up-to-date understanding of whether sellers have a working knowledge of the laws surrounding gun sales, however current employees might not want to discuss or implicate their dealer for fear of losing their job. Thus it might be necessary to interview former gun store employees. While their input might reflect past methodology instead of present practice, it would be of equal relevance to the study.

Dealers could be located in the same way they were located in Sorenson’s study – searching for keywords of “guns”, “gun dealers”, and “firearms” in an internet business directory. Additionally, one could use the White Pages and search for these keywords manually. Gun stores are located across the country, and can be found in the “Northeast (Baltimore, New York City, Philadelphia), South (Memphis, Nashville, Jacksonville, Oklahoma City, Houston, Dallas, San Antonio, El Paso, Austin, Fort Worth), Midwest (Cleveland, Indianapolis), and West (Denver, Seattle, Phoenix, Los Angeles, San Diego)” (Sorenson & Vittes). Finding a gun store employee to interview would not be a particularly difficult task.

It would be most beneficial to interview the employees in person, as phone interviews would have a low correspondence rate (unlike the Sorenson study, we would not be pretending to be potential buyers, so there is less incentive for an employee to stay on the phone). However, it would be difficult, practically, to do in-person interviews across the country, so we might be restricted to picking a sample from one specific region. Even in a relatively small region though, the sample size is acceptable -- an online directory yields 70 results for gun shops in the state of Connecticut.[4] 

We would want an appropriate sample of stores, hopefully representing both the population of dealers that are not linked to crime guns and the 1% of the dealers responsible for more than half of the traced crime guns. A difference in knowledge or store policy between these two extremes would give us an increased understanding of why straw purchases are such an effective means for criminals to get handguns. Gun stores that fell somewhere in the middle would allow us to analyze whether there was an overall correlation between knowledge or policy and the number of crime guns traced to the gun store. While the ATF does not give out specifics about the gun stores linked with crime guns, they do provide a chart of the top recovery cities for firearms in Connecticut. Hartford is first, followed by Greenwich, New Haven, New Canaan and Bridgeport. Due to the short “time to crime” rates, it may be more likely that guns were purchased in these cities, so we would make an effort to sample gun stores in these areas. (ATF, Trace Data). The interviews would be recorded with consent of the other party, as Connecticut is a two-party consent state.[5]


Interview questions are as follows:

For the sake of this proposal, questions are grouped into sections to help understand their purpose. Questions are followed by italicized sample answers, separated by semi-colons, and their implications for the study.


General Questions

§  How many years have you worked at this gun store?

X number of years or Since 200X. Possibly, more experienced employees are more apt at recognizing straw purchases. If so, are they more likely to stop them? Or do they, at that point, have enough of an understanding of the system to realize that their chances of getting in trouble are slim?

      §  Do you have a federal firearms license?

            Yes or No. This question serves to gauge whether having a FFL affects one’s           willingness to participate in straw purchases.  

§  Are you paid on commission?

Yes or No. If being paid on commission is even permitted in gun stores, this question helps to determine if those paid on commission are more likely to sell to straws simply because they make money off the transaction. 


Questions to Gauge Understanding of Straw Purchases

§  What, to the extent of your knowledge, is a straw purchase?

A straw purchase is one in which a customer buys a gun for another who is incapable or unwilling to buy it; I’m not sure; When you sell to a person who isn’t going to use the gun. This is the simplest of the questions attempting to gauge understanding of straw purchases. Without even a definition of a straw purchase, employees will not be able to stop straw purchases.

§  Describe a typical straw purchaser.

Normally female, sometimes accompanied by a man who is also looking at or inspecting the firearms; They normally don’t know very much about weapons, maybe they go in and out of the store a few times to talk to someone; Perhaps gun store employees understand straw purchases, but are unaware of what they should be looking for.

§  What signs do you look for when watching for straw purchases?

Generally really nervous, they don’t know much about guns; A customer that is followed around by another person, who handles the guns but then doesn’t purchase them. This question attacks the same problem as the one above. If employees have a solid understanding of the definition of straw purchases and know how to pick out a straw purchase, perhaps they are better at stopping them.

§  What is the consequence (or punishment) for allowing a straw purchase to occur?

Most of the time nothing, but in theory maybe the owner gets his license revoked; This gun store is very strict about straw purchases, so I would be fired if I was known to have been involved in a straw purchase.  This question tests the employee’s knowledge of the law surrounding the punishment for straw purchases and the workings of the regulatory system currently in place, and also the strictness of the specific gun store.

§  What means could be implemented to test if a buyer is a straw purchaser? Have you ever implemented any of these techniques?

You could ask the buyer more questions. If they got confused or had to consult another person, you might have a better indication. I’ve questioned a few people, and sometimes they leave after the interaction.

§  If a customer came to you and asked to buy a gun for his or her girlfriend or boyfriend because s/he “needed” it, what would be your response?

I would not sell the gun; As long as it wasn’t for a criminal, I would sell it. This puts their knowledge to the test. Maybe there is some disconnect between the understanding of the law and their ability to put it into practice.


Experience with Straw Purchases

§  Did you receive any training on straw purchases when you were first employed? Did you receive any instructions from management on how to deal with straw purchases?

Yes or No; The manager simply told us not to ask questions. Possibly, dealers of gun stores with more crime gun traces instruct their employees not to interfere with straw purchases. Does this training correlate with an employees understanding of straw purchases and their ability to stop them.

§  Have you ever suspected a customer of being a straw purchaser and gone through with the sale anyway? What was your reasoning?

Yes, there have been a few times when I thought a buyer might be doing a straw purchase, but I had no definitive proof, and I didn’t want to lose the sale. This measures an employee’s experience and history with straw purchases.  

§  How likely are you to call out a straw purchase? What affects that decision?

As long as they haven’t given me definitive proof that they’re doing something illegal, I’ll make the sale. It’s not my job to judge people for their purchase. Are those who are trained for straw purchases more likely to try to stop straw purchases?

§  Given a scenario in which you’re uncertain, would you continue with the purchase? Why or why not?

It depends if the person looks trustworthy. If I thought they were going to use it for crime, I wouldn’t continue with the purchase.


 Gun store employees are employees like any other, subject to emotional biases when they commit to a sale. The implications of their actions, however, have a significant impact on American lives and safety, and thus it is important to ensure that they are trained, educated, and willing to follow the law. We expect bouncers to be trained to spot fake IDs. Is it unreasonable to expect gun store employees to be trained to spot straw purchases? This study tests gun store employees understanding of the law surrounding straw purchases. The results of the study would have implications for how to limit straw purchases: if employees do not understand the law, education for new employees should be emphasized. But if they know the law and are willing to work around it, the operative solution might be increased regulation on straw purchases that resembles the policing of liquor stores that sell to minors.




Braga, Anthony A., Andrew V. Papachristos, and David Hureau. (2009). “The Concentration and Stability of Gun Violence at Micro-Places in Boston, 1980-2008.” Journal of Quantitative Criminology v26 n1: 33-53.

Braga, Anthony A., Phillip J. Cook, David M. Kennedy, and Mark H. Moore. (2002). “The Illegal Supply of Firearms,” Crime and Justice Vol 29. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Cook, Phillip J., Stephanie Molliconi, and Thomas B. Cole. (1995). “Regulating Gun Markets.”  The Journal of Criminal Law & Criminology v86 n1: 59-92.

Department of the Treasury, Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms and Explosives. (2005). “ATF Firearms Trace Data Connecticut.” ATF.

Department of the Treasury, Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms and Explosives. (2005). “Federal Firearms Reference Guide.” ATF.

Kaplan, M.S. And Olga Geling. (1998). “Firearm Suicides and Homicides in the United States: Regional Variations and Patterns of Gun Ownership,” Social Science and Medicine v46 n9: 1227-1233.

Mayors Against Illegal Guns (MAIG). “Employee Background Checks.” MAIG.

Mayors Against Illegal Guns (MAIG). “Inside Straw Purchases: How Criminals Get Guns Illegally.” MAIG.     purchases.pdf

Papachristos, A. & Meares, T. (2013, October 2). Guns in the United States. Lecture conducted from Yale University, New Haven, CT.

Perkins, Carl. “Weapon Use and Violent Crime: National Crime Victimization Survey, 1993-2001” Bureau of Justice Statistics.

Sorenson, S.B. And K.A. Vittes. (2003). “Buying a handgun for someone else: firearm dealer willingness to sell.” Injury Prevention 9: 147-150.

Winkler, A. (2011). Gun Fight: The Battle Over the Right to Bear Arms in America. New York: Norton.


[1] Why handguns? Handguns make up 87% of violent firearm victimizations (Perkins).

[2] Straw purchases violate Federal law when the seller is aware than the purchaser is making false statements on the Form 4473 (ATF, Federal Firearm Reference Guide).

[3] Dealers are not even required by law to conduct background check on store employees (MAIG, Employee Background Checks).

[4] See “Gun Shops In Connecticut” at

[5] 18 U.S.C. 2511(2)(d)