Gun control is a hot political topic these days, and it's making waves in the legal world as well, as victims of gun violence try to attach liability for their injuries to people other than the shooter. Who is liable when someone manages to slip past the fail-safes that are designed to keep firearms out of the hands of those who are unstable or violent? In the case of a straw man purchase, the firearms dealer may be liable. If you've been the victim of violence by someone who purchased a firearm despite restrictions that should have prevented the sale, this is what you should know.
What's a straw man firearms purchase?
A straw man purchase is where one person makes a purchase on behalf of someone else in order to avoid the laws that would otherwise prevent the sale. The nominal buyer, or "straw man," meets all of the requirements in his or her state to buy the firearm. The real buyer would not pass the Brady Act's mandatory background check due to:
- a felony conviction
- being a fugitive from justice
- status as an illegal alien
- a domestic violence order
- a conviction due to domestic violence
- mental illness
- addiction to a controlled substance
A straw purchase violates federal law. Despite that, ATF investigations from 2004-2006 showed that they are widespread, particularly at gun shows. A study done by New York City officials found that 94% of federally licensed firearms dealers in the area were willing to make straw man sales.
Firearms dealers have a duty to the law and the public to make sure that they follow the law and take reasonable precautions to keep firearms out of the hands of people who shouldn't have them. They're expected to exercise caution, take appropriate steps to make sure purchases are legitimate, and stop sales if they aren't convinced that the sale is legal. When they fail to do so, they're violating a duty that they owe the general public—including you, if you end up victimized by the individual who made the illegal purchase.
How can a firearms dealer be held responsible?
Whenever there are incidents involving firearm violence, the police conduct an investigation into the shooter's background. When that reveals a history of violence, illegal activity, or mental instability, the police (and victims) want to know how the shooter got possession of the weapons used. When the investigation reveals that the shooter managed to obtain the weapon through a dealer, that's a good sign that the dealer didn't follow the rules.
Evidence of straw man sales can be drawn out through the use of witness testimony, video camera evidence, and the paperwork for the sale itself. It includes things like
- an individual examines a firearm as if intending to purchase it, but someone else actually makes the purchase
- an individual is clearly following another person's directions when looking at or purchasing the firearm
- the straw man takes the money for the firearm from the actual purchaser and hands it to the dealer
- paperwork regarding the purchase is altered to meet the requirements of the Brady Act
- the person filing out the paperwork asks someone else for their information, like an address, to put down on the forms
For instance, in a case in Wisconsin, a $6 million dollar verdict was handed down to the victims of gun violence over the sale of a gun to a straw man buyer. The real buyer later used the gun to shoot two police officers. There was enough evidence on videotape and through testimony to show that the clerk was aware of the deception. Under the law, a business is responsible for its employee's actions, so the business is liable for the negligent sale.
If you've been injured due to firearms violence and investigations reveal that the shooter obtained the weapon through a straw man purchase, contact a personal injury attorney to discuss the possibility of a case against the dealer.