In Philadelphia, people over 21 who pass a state background check can purchase as many handguns at a time as they want to.
Researchers, activists, and law enforcement officials say this creates the opportunity for straw purchasing — a term that refers to people buying weapons, and selling them to others who aren’t allowed to have them, like those with a criminal record or underage people. Straw purchasing is a federal felony.
Last week, the City of Philadelphia announced it’s suing three firearms vendors that are accused of knowingly allowing these illegal sales in store. The lawsuit names Frank’s Gun Shop Double Tap Shooting Range and Delia’s Gun Shop in Northeast Philadelphia, and Tanner’s Sports Center in Bucks County.
“Their reckless business practices have resulted in the loss of life and many other preventable tragedies,” Renee Garcia, litigation chair at the City Law Department, said.
While conducting research for the lawsuit, the city was able to trace 150 crime guns back to these three shops, Garcia said.
The defendants’ legal representation for the case has not been named, and none of the three stores responded to requests for comment from WHYY News.
Law enforcement officials believe there are many more illegally trafficked guns in circulation that haven’t been discovered yet.
There have been 848 nonfatal and 222 fatal shootings in the city so far this year, according to data from the Office of the Controller.
Shown is an alleged straw purchased weapon displayed during a news conference in Norristown, Pa., Wednesday, Feb. 22, 2023. (AP Photo/Matt Rourke)
There are signs that gun store owners and staff can look out for to tell whether someone is making a straw purchase, experts say. Those include customers who make bulk purchases, who buy the same firearm repeatedly, or who come in with another person who shops for the firearm but doesn’t fill out the form.
For the last two decades, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives has partnered with the National Shooting Sports Foundation, a firearm industry trade association with 20,000 members, to provide training on how to spot this crime.
“They’re really the first line of defense when it comes to stopping straw purchases,” said foundation spokesperson Mark Oliva. “Many times the retailer is alerting ATF to it.”
Their anti-straw purchasing messaging campaign, “Don’t Lie for the Other Guy,” rolled out in the Philadelphia area in June 2022 with billboards, radio spots, and in-store signs. The program is fully funded by the firearm industry.
Oliva said the group does support legal action against retailers when justified.
“The people committing the crimes are the ones who are falsifying the form,” he said. “If there are retailers who are assisting in that crime, they need to be held accountable.”
Retailers are allowed to withhold the sale of a firearm if they suspect a straw purchase.