Campaign focuses on illegal gun purchases


The U.S. attorney's office and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives have issued a stern reminder to firearms dealers and purchasers: Helping a criminal buy a gun makes you one, too.

Don't Lie for the Other Guy, a national public awareness campaign launched yesterday in Baltimore, seeks to curtail gun violence by cracking down on "straw purchases" -- a common scenario in which a person with a clean record knowingly buys a gun on behalf of a criminal or other restricted person.

But while proponents of tighter gun control praised the effort, they warned that awareness efforts alone don't go far enough in squelching the country's illegal gun trade.

Jointly funded by the Justice Department and the National Shooting Sports Foundation, the Don't Lie program combines an educational program focused on gun dealers with an awareness campaign for the general public. Under federal law, those convicted of involvement in straw purchases could be sentenced to 10 years in a federal prison and a $250,000 fine.

Through the new program, mobile classrooms will travel among Maryland's 1,700 licensed gun dealers, offering tips for gun dealers and their clerks on how to spot a potential straw purchase. And starting Monday, a 30-second public service announcement about straw purchases will begin airing on local television stations. The spot reminds gun buyers that lying when they fill out the mandatory Form 4473 is a felony, and both the real purchaser and straw purchaser could face charges.

Lawrence Keane, senior vice president and general counsel for the foundation, said the program exemplifies the firearms industry's "long-standing cooperative relationship with law enforcement."

The Don't Lie program started on the heels of a June 2000 ATF study that estimated 14,000 illegally trafficked firearms are originally acquired through straw purchases each year. Since launching in July 2000, the campaign has distributed 25,000 information kits to gun dealers in Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia, the Carolinas and Virginia.

The program comes to Baltimore as New York Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg crusades against the gun industry and Congress weighs legislation that could change ATF regulations for gun dealer enforcement. After testifying before Congress in March about firearms enforcement, Bloomberg conducted a nationwide sting operation last month against gun dealers that allow straw purchases. Meanwhile, critics say the new bills pending in Congress would weaken the ATF's ability to penalize licensed dealers that violate federal law.

Daniel Webster, co-director of the Center for Gun Policy and Research at the Johns Hopkins University's Bloomberg School of Public Health, said that educational programs such as Don't Lie, while helpful, are not a substitute for vigilant law enforcement and regular compliance checks. Studies have shown that 1 percent of licensed gun dealers are responsible for selling 50 percent of all guns traced to violent crime, he said, and an educational program is not likely to impact the most flagrant offenders.

"It's naive to think that a program like this is going to influence some corrupt gun dealers and straw purchasers," Webster said. "It's not a bad idea, but the public should not be fooled into thinking that programs like this are the answer."

Michael Campbell, a special agent and spokesman for the ATF, said that through the Don't Lie campaign, the ATF is emphasizing its role as an educator and information source -- as opposed to being strictly an enforcer -- for licensed dealers.

"Yes, we regulate. Yes, we have the authority to revoke their license. Do we want to do that? No," he said. "It is a legal business. We look at it as our responsibility as well to teach the firearms dealers what they need to do. If they choose to ignore that, then they'll suffer the consequences."

Licensed gun dealers are not required to participate in the campaign by displaying Don't Lie materials or attending educational sessions, but Keane said dealer response has been "overwhelmingly positive" in areas where the program exists.

"The program is optional," added Campbell. "The law is not."

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