A picture of Senator Richard J. Durbin
Richard D.
Democrat IL

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  • Stop Illegal Trafficking of Firearms Act

    by Senator Richard J. Durbin

    Posted on 2013-03-05

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    DURBIN. Mr. President, yesterday the Senate took an important step forward when it comes to keeping guns out of the hands of criminals. Senator Pat Leahy, chairman of the Judiciary Committee, introduced bipartisan legislation to finally crack down on the straw purchasing and illegal trafficking of firearms. I was happy to join in introducing this bill. It is a bipartisan group of Senators, including Senator Kirsten Gillibrand, Senator Susan Collins, and my colleague from Illinois, Senator Mark Kirk. Chairman Leahy's legislation combined a straw purchasing bill he and I introduced earlier this year together with a gun trafficking bill on which Senators Gillibrand and Kirk had been working. We sat down with Senator Collins and crafted a new bill, the Stop Illegal Trafficking of Firearms Act. It is important legislation, and the need for it is very clear.

    I have met a number of times in recent months with law enforcement leaders in Chicago and across my State. I asked them what Congress can do to help better protect our communities and our children, and one thing I kept hearing over and over again was that we needed to crack down on straw purchases. Time after time, law enforcement agencies say, criminals and gang members commit crimes with guns they purchased through others.

    A typical straw purchase happens when someone who legally can purchase a weapon and pass a background check buys a gun on behalf of someone who cannot pass that same background check. When a straw purchaser buys from a licensed gun dealer, the purchaser falsely claims on the Federal sale form that he is the actual buyer of the gun. Under current law, it is illegal to lie and buy a gun this way, but the only charge a Federal prosecutor can bring is for knowingly making a false statement on a Federal form--an offense which dramatically understates the gravity of the situation.

    We have had several hearings in the Senate Judiciary Committee, including one I chaired on February 12, where U.S. attorneys have testified that these paperwork prosecutions are wholly inadequate as a deterrent for straw purchasing. Some of the critics even on my Senate Judiciary Subcommittee panel said: Why don't you prosecute more? The U.S. attorneys told us it's because these paperwork offenses are not taken that seriously by the court. The new law we have written will be taken seriously.

    The cases, as they stand now, are hard to prove and have little jury appeal. Even a conviction usually results in a very small sentence under the current law. The reality is that straw purchasers think they can make a fast $50 or more by buying a gun from somebody else, and that the consequences are not that great. We need to change this equation.

    At the hearing I chaired in the Judiciary Committee's Constitution Subcommittee on February 12, we heard powerful testimony from Sandra Wortham from the South Side of Chicago. Her brother, a Chicago police officer, Tom Wortham IV, was murdered in 2010 by gang members with a handgun that had been straw purchased and trafficked to Chicago from Mississippi. Almost 1 out of 10 crime guns in Chicago come from Mississippi. We ask why. Because the standards for sales are lax in Mississippi, and straw purchasers know they can fill the trunk of a car with these purchased weapons and head to the Windy City and sell them on the streets to thugs and drug gangs. Then, of course, they result in tragedy.

    The gang members who killed Officer Wortham were not allowed to buy a handgun from a dealer because of their age and criminal records, but it was real easy to get a straw purchased gun on the street. According to an investigative report by the Chicago Tribune, [[Page S1098]] the man who straw purchased the gun that killed Officer Wortham did so for a quick $100. The Tribune said he gave little thought to what he was doing. ``I didn't even know what ATF stood for,'' the straw purchaser said to the Tribune.

    That was the gun that was used to kill Officer Wortham, a veteran of two combat tours in Iraq, a leader in his community, one of Chicago's finest, and he was gunned down in front of his parents' home. His father was a retired Chicago police officer.

    We need to send a message to those who think that straw purchasing might be an easy way to make a quick buck. As Sandra Wortham said at our hearing: We need to do more to keep guns out of the wrong hands in the first place. I don't think that makes us anti-gun, I think it makes us pro-decent law abiding people.

    I agree with Sandra Wortham. We can take steps consistent with the Constitution and the Second Amendment to crack down on straw purchases and gun-trafficking schemes that provide criminals with guns, and that is what this bill does.

    The bill we introduced yesterday will create a tough Federal crime to punish and deter straw purchasing. It says that if a straw purchaser buys a gun from a licensed dealer on behalf of someone else, the buyer will face the prospect of significant jail time for up to 15 years. They will face hard time for a Federal crime. The same penalty applies to straw purchasers who buy a gun from a private seller on behalf of someone he knows or is has reasonable cause to believe is a prohibited purchaser.

    The legislation also creates a separate Federal offense for firearms trafficking, which is when someone transports or transfers firearms to another when he knows or has reasonable cause to believe that transfer violates Federal law. The bill provides for increased penalties if the trafficker was a leader of an organized gang.

    Cracking down straw purchasing and gun trafficking will help shut down the pipeline of guns into cities such as Chicago, where gang members use them on almost a daily basis to commit terrible crimes.

    This section of our bill is named in honor of Hadiya Pendleton, the 15-year-old girl in Chicago who was shot and killed by alleged gang members in January just days after she attended the inauguration of the President of the United States here in Washington. Both Senator Kirk's hope and mine is that these reforms--once signed into law--will help prevent gang shootings and other gun crimes in the future.

    It is time to move forward on this legislation and on other commonsense proposals that will reduce the epidemic of gun violence in America. This Thursday, the Senate Judiciary Committee will take up this bipartisan legislation that was introduced yesterday. I hope we can pass it out quickly with a strong bipartisan vote.

    I also look forward to voting in committee for bills to improve our system of criminal background checks and to stop the flood of new military-style and high-capacity magazines onto our streets. It is time for Congress to move forward with these measures to reduce gun violence. These proposals will not stop every shooting in America--no proposal can--but they will save lives if we put them into effect.

    I again thank my colleagues Chairman Leahy, Senator Kirk, Senator Gillibrand, and Senator Collins for collectively joining together to make sure this legislation moves forward. I think we can do something important, on a bipartisan basis, to make our streets, schools, and communities safer across America.

    I ask unanimous consent that my following statement be placed in a separate part of the Record.

    The ACTING PRESIDENT pro tempore. Without objection, it is so ordered.


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