Gun Trafficking and the Straw purchases problem


If it’s really true that a quarter to half of seized illegal firearms in Honduras originate in the US (as per this article:, clearly there’s a supply side issue.

For the FFL that decides to be unscrupulous, the risk of getting caught for involvement in cartel gun trafficking schemes is extremely low. In fact, plausible deniability is pretty high as well. The dealer does due diligence as always, the buyer passes his BG check every time, what’s the problem?

Well, we don’t have a firearms registry so we can’t easily trace back from the cache of seized guns in Honduras to the shop in San Antonio.

I’m curious to hear what folks think about how technology might be used to address this specific problem,or whether focusing on it is a distraction from larger questions–in what other ways is the US contributing to instability in Central America, and would we be better served by addressing root causes?


First, it’s important to recognize that this probably isn’t a problem. The quarter-to-half number isn’t of all illegal guns in these countries, or all guns used in crimes, but of all guns submitted to the ATF for tracing. Given that different jurisdictions have different models available for sale and use, this tool is usually used for confirmation of already existing belief – it should be surprising that this is so low. Moreover, just because a gun was traced to the United States doesn’t mean that it came from a straw purchase : most guns tied to crime came from theft rather than unlawful purchase, sometimes from armories or police and military sources.

Likewise, when there was an actual straw purchase rather than a theft or lost firearm, those traces do incriminate bad actors among FFLs and purchasers. The BATFE can trace a cache of seized guns. Not only in the sense that a serial number tells the BATFE exactly what FFL last had the gun before selling it to individuals, or that in turn gives the BATFE a signed confession form 4437 with exact name and signature of a purchaser, but also in the sense that stings and informants are exceptionally common. Proven bad behavior absolutely can end up in revocation of a license, or even imprisonment, so on.

There are some technical things that can be pushed. Customs and border enforcement is a joke in most sadistic way possible, right now, coming down on the law-abiding or mere paperwork mistakes like a load of bricks while not touching severe bad actors. Some of that’s a political matter that’s a really hard problem to solve: if you could talk people into not taking frustrations related to illegal immigration out on legal applicants, there’d be far grander issues we could be focused on.

Other aspects are technical, though. There’s a lot of sensors out there that work in theory, but are either so unreliable, so manpower intensive, or so expensive that they’re only used for minuscule fractions of customs work. But at the same time, it’s an issue that will also be getting harder to fight, as drones, remote vehicles, and ultra-light aircraft become more and more available to smugglers.

But this doesn’t really solve the problem of homicide in these countries. Places with similar levels of civil unrest and no obvious links to American firearms still have awfully high death rates, either by getting guns in other manners, or falling back to other means of slaughter, or both. We don’t really know what processes a low-income low-stability country needs to take in order to improve those situations. And fixing that is both a hard problem and one that Americans are unusually ill-fitted toward. While blaming American foreign policy for the current state of Honduras is a little much, the Contras are remembers and not remembered well.


What did you mean to write here?


This is a great point that the article glosses over, thank you for clarifying.


I would disagree that an unscrupulous FFL has a low risk of getting caught. Federal agencies and prosecutors can basically decide to make your life however hard they want, irrespective of the merits of your defense. 97% of federal convictions are obtained by plea bargain, not in an actual trial. The way they get that number is that by the time they’re done stacking charges up, you’ll be looking at 20+ years, and there’s no parole in the federal system. Then they come to you and say “Plead guilty and we’ll only give you 5 years.” Even if you’re completely innocent, you might jump on that plea deal. If you’re not completely innocent, you’ll definitely jump on it.

FFLs are aware of this dynamic. If the ATF decides that you’re a bad seed, they can end your business through simple regulatory processes, to say nothing of the possible criminal charges. So any FFL that gives the ATF an actual reason to think ill of them is just asking for trouble. Not saying the bad seeds aren’t out there, but it doesn’t strike me as the kind of thing an FFL would enter into casually.


Sorry, was going to into further details on how the whole Contra-Sandinista thing affecting Honduras specifically, but it detracted from the post as a whole, and I excised the tangent less than deftfully.


You’re thinking like a citizen, not a criminal :).

Another poster clarified that I basically fell for the Trace’s bait, or more specifically, their misleading framing of the problem.

In any case, I can imagine someone with little understanding of how an FFL works and how easily the ATF can shut them down to be uncomfortable with the idea that it’s mostly the discretion of individual gun shop employees that prevents so many illegitimate transactions, as opposed to some piece of legislation.