Gun manufacturers, faced with the possibility of lawsuits similar to those that have hit the tobacco industry, are cooperating with the government in a campaign to prevent "straw purchases" of firearms.
On Thursday, the National Shooting Sports Foundation (www.nssf.org), the powerful firearms industry trade association, announced that it was joining with the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms to sponsor "Don't Lie for the Other Guy," an attempt at preventing gun purchases by girlfriends, brothers, buddies or paid middlemen at the behest of felons barred from gun ownership.
"There's no responsible gun manufacturer who knows or hopes his product will find its way to the criminal element," said NSSF president Robert Delfay. "It's just good business."
The move by Delfay's group, which is underwritten by iconic names such as Colt, Winchester, Ruger, Beretta, Glock and Smith & Wesson, follows a BATF study ("Following the Gun" at www.ATF.Treas.gov) released last month that blames nearly half of black-market guns on "straw purchases."
"That figure blew us away," says Delfay. The BATF study demolished the theory, strongly held by gun aficionados, that most crime guns were stolen from honest owners. If, in fact, dealers were selling the majority of crime guns over the counter in face-to-face transactions with crooks' shills some of whom clearly couldn't tell a revolver from a semi-automatic then the entire industry might be accused of wink-and-nod profiteering, rank incompetence, or both. The trend is likely to escalate. Since it came online in 1998, the FBI's computerized National Instant Check System has foiled 130,000 gun buys by felons and other disqualified people, and that, says Delfay, "makes straw transactions much more critical."
Industry officials are also keenly aware that acts of omission will be rich fodder for the army of plaintiffs' lawyers and state attorneys general who are itching to go after the gun industry the way they took on Big Tobacco.
In the campaign, the NSSF, with the enthusiastic backing of the BATF, is plastering 15,000 dealers with posters, fliers and counter pads depicting a handsome young man being led off to a bleak cell. The slogan: "Don't lie for the other guy. Purchase a gun for someone who can't and buy yourself 10 years in jail." NSSF and BATF officials hope to get girlfriends and pals to balk when they realize they may face severe penalties for making false statements on Form 4473, the federal firearms purchase declaration.
In addition, the campaign targets gun dealers. Leaflets warn that they risk the same penalties if they go through with a sale knowing, or having reason to suspect, that their customer is buying for someone else. The pamphlets profile typical straw deals and urge dealers to report suspicious characters to 1-800-ATF-GUNS.
Eventually, the NSSF hopes to enlist a few celebrities to do TV ads. There's even a song in the works; NSSF publicists say they have written country, pop and rap versions of "Don't Lie for the Other Guy."