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Patrick L.
Democrat VT

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  • Statements on Introduced Bills and Joint Resolutions

    by Senator Patrick J. Leahy

    Posted on 2013-03-04

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    LEAHY (for himself, Ms. Collins, Mr. Durbin, Mrs. Gillibrand, Mr. Kirk, Mr. Blumenthal, and Mr. King): S. 443. A bill to increase public safety by punishing and deterring firearms trafficking; to the Committee on the Judiciary.

    Mr. LEAHY. Today I am proud to introduce modified legislation to combat the practice of straw purchasing and illegal trafficking in firearms. Since my initial introduction of the Stop Illegal Trafficking in Firearms Act at the very beginning of the 113th Congress on January 22, I have had productive conversations with several Senators who share my goal of reducing this destructive criminal conduct. Today I am pleased to be joined by Senator Collins, Senator Durbin, Senator Kirk, Senator Gillibrand, and Senator Blumenthal. These Senators understand the weaknesses in our current law and the challenges faced by law enforcement officials. I thank them for their commitment to this legislation, for their support of law enforcement, and for their cooperation in making progress in our collective efforts to prevent and reduce gun violence.

    I hope that as other Senators on both sides of the aisle become more familiar with our bipartisan proposal, they will understand how it provides law enforcement with the tools they need to go after those who engage in the straw purchasing and illegal trafficking of firearms. The practice of straw purchasing is used for one thing to put firearms into the hands of those that are prohibited by law from having them. Many are then used to further violent crimes.

    I have heard again and again from Senators on both sides of the aisle that keeping guns away from those who should not have them is a goal worth pursuing. This bill will further that effort and help answer the call from Gabrielle Giffords and so many Americans for us to take action.

    I want to commend the senior Senator from Maine, Senator Collins, for her leadership on this matter and for her willingness to work across the aisle to make real progress. She helped unite us to get this done. Without her, we would not have made the progress we have, or be in position to consider this comprehensive response to what law enforcement has told us they need.

    This week, the Senate Judiciary Committee will continue our consideration of four measures to reduce gun violence. The issue of gun trafficking and straw purchasing is before the Committee. I will amend my original trafficking bill that is pending on the Committee agenda with the text of this bipartisan compromise, which combines the proposals that I put forward with Senator Durbin at the beginning of this Congress as well as proposals that have been championed by Senator Gillibrand and Senator Kirk. Our substitute amendment will improve the language already pending before the Committee. As I did before introducing any measure related to gun violence this year, I also hope to continue my outreach to the Judiciary Committee's Ranking Member. I invite Senator Grassley and other members of the Committee from both sides of the aisle to join with us so that I can report this measure with strong bipartisan support and without delay for consideration by the Senate.

    Law enforcement officials have complained for years that they lack the legal tools necessary effectively to combat illegal straw purchasing and firearms trafficking. Congressional inquiry during the last Congress put a spotlight on the very difficult legal environment within which law enforcement officials currently operate. In fact, one of the whistleblowers who testified about the misguided tactics used by Federal law enforcement in firearms trafficking investigations in Arizona described the current laws as ``toothless.'' If we are to address gun violence, we should respond to this clear vulnerability that is being exploited by criminals.

    The Stop Illegal Trafficking in Firearms Act will make important changes to Federal firearms statutes that will better equip law enforcement officials to investigate and prosecute the all-too-common practices of straw purchasing and illegal trafficking of firearms. Straw purchases typically involve a person, who is not prohibited by Federal law, purchasing a firearm on behalf of a prohibited person, or at the direction of a drug trafficking or other criminal organization. These practices result in the support of larger criminal organizations, and the illegally obtained guns are often sold and re-sold across state lines. This trafficking in firearms results in the proliferation of illegal firearms and gun violence in our communities. Straw [[Page S1091]] purchasers circumvent the purposes of the background check system, and they put law enforcement officials and law-abiding firearms dealers in difficult positions. Gun trafficking and straw purchasing make our communities less safe.

    Under current law, there is no specific statute that makes it illegal to act as a straw purchaser of firearms. Nor is there a law directly on point to address the illegal trafficking of firearms. As a result, prosecutors must cobble together charges against a straw purchaser using so-called ``paperwork'' violations such as misrepresentations on a Federal form. These laws are imperfect, and do not give prosecutors the leverage needed to encourage straw buyers, often the lowest rungs on a ladder in a criminal enterprise, to provide the information needed for investigators and prosecutors to go after those directing and profiting from such activity.

    The bipartisan bill we introduce today will add two new provisions to our Federal criminal code to specifically prohibit serving as a straw purchaser of firearms and trafficking in firearms. The bill establishes tough penalties for these offenses in an effort to punish and importantly, deter this conduct. We need a meaningful solution to this serious problem. Talk about prosecuting mere paperwork offenses is no answer.

    Under current law, it is a crime to transfer a firearm to another with the knowledge that the firearm will be used in criminal activity. This bill would strengthen this existing law by prohibiting such a transfer where the transferor has ``reasonable cause to believe'' that the firearm will be used in criminal activity. We listened to concerns about family members who give firearms as gifts and other transfers that are not designed to get around the existing background check system. As a result, the bill contains important exemptions for the innocent transfer of a firearm as a gift, or in relation to a legitimate raffle, auction or contest.

    Another key provision of our bipartisan bill is that it complements existing law that makes it a crime to smuggle firearms into the United States by specifically prohibiting the smuggling of firearms out of the United States. In light of what we know is occurring, particularly on our Southwest border, this is an important improvement to current law and another tool that was needed but missing over the last few years.

    The provisions laid out in our legislation are focused, commonsense remedies to the very real problems of firearms trafficking and straw purchasing. Our bill does not affect lawful purchases from Federal firearms licensees, and in no way alters their rights and responsibilities as sellers of a lawful commodity. I hope Federal firearms licensees welcome a stronger deterrent to keep criminal straw purchasers out of their business.

    The problems of gun trafficking and straw purchasers, particularly along the Southwest border, are matters we have been talking about for years. Senator Durbin chaired a hearing on border violence back in early 2009. Law enforcement officials have called for a firearms trafficking statute that can be effective to go after straw purchasers. That is something agents did not have when they initiated Operation Wide Receiver during the Bush administration and later the disastrous Fast and Furious effort. Their frustration with the limits of the current law contributed to their looking for another way to make a difference in their fight against gun trafficking. Their initiative was a failure. What we need to do now is to create better law enforcement tools. I hope that those who have been concerned about Fast and Furious, whose investigation established that it was the local ATF agents in Arizona who initiated and so poorly implemented that effort, will join with us to close the loophole in the law that Mexican drug cartels are continuing to exploit.

    Our bill was drafted at the request of law enforcement. It will provide needed tools to fight against the drug cartels and other criminals who threaten our communities. It will not undermine the Second Amendment rights of lawful gun owners. It has the support of many law enforcement organizations--both leadership and rank and file. Indeed, the original bill I introduced with Senator Durbin has been supported by the National Fraternal Order of Police, the National Law Enforcement Partnership to Prevent Gun Violence, the Federal Law Enforcement Officers Association, the International Association of Chiefs of Police, the Major Cities Chiefs Association, the National District Attorneys Association, and the Police Executive Research Forum. I urge everyone who cares about keeping firearms out of the hands of criminals to join in this effort.

    We have an obligation to find solutions to reduce gun violence and I thank these Senators for their strong leadership. We can do this in a way consistent with the rights guaranteed by the Second Amendment. I believe our bipartisan legislation meets those goals. As Chairman of the Judiciary Committee, a Senator, a Vermonter, an American, a father and a grandfather, I look forward to continuing our progress on this important legislation.

    The PRESIDING OFFICER. The Senator from Maine.

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