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Are We Prosecuting Straw Buyers?
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Are We Prosecuting Straw Buyers?

Illinois works to introduce new legislation while it remains unclear whether current laws are being enforced.

Smith & Wesson handguns on sale in a gun store in Houston. (Photo by Brandon Bell/Getty Images.)

Government records can tell you a lot of very interesting things. But one thing I have learned working in journalism is that you can learn a great deal from what records the government does not keep—or share. For example, there is some evidence—but not dispositive proof—that police officers commit crimes at a rate higher than that of the general population. While it is relatively easy to get information about the race, sex, or age breakdown of various offender populations, getting hard information about how many offenders are law-enforcement officers is effectively impossible. That’s an issue that no law-enforcement agency is especially interested in talking about—the incentives are all wrong. 

And the incentives get pretty interesting elsewhere, too. 

Consider the perennially misgoverned state of Illinois, where Democrats led by Gov. J.B. Pritzker have made a priority of enacting new gun-control rules. One of those new rules requires firearms dealers to undergo a state licensing procedure, even though gun dealers already are subject to licensing at the federal level—a process that is very rigorous. Why impose an Illinois licensure requirement on top of the federal requirement? “To eliminate straw purchases and reduce gun trafficking,” the governor’s office says. 

Those are worthy goals. We should make a priority of working against straw purchasers, who are a major source—in all likelihood, the most important source—of firearms for career criminals who are not able to obtain them legally. Illinois even revised its statewide straw-purchase law in 2021. 

But is Illinois actually making a priority of prosecuting straw buyers? Are there more straw-buyer prosecutions today than there were two years ago? Are prosecutors seeking stiffer sentences? Are they getting more convictions? I don’t know. 

More to the point, neither does the top statewide prosecutor in Illinois. 

What is remarkable is the fact that—and I am not making this up—the Office of the Attorney General in Illinois does not have any statistics on straw-purchase prosecutions. I know this because I have an email in front of me from the AG’s office reading: “The Office of the Illinois Attorney General does not have any statistics on straw-purchase prosecutions.” They are out there talking about how seriously they take “gun crime” (they do not take it seriously) and gun-trafficking in particular but do not have any records relating to how many cases they have brought involving the most important kind of gun-trafficking. At least, they say they don’t have any such records—we must entertain the remote possibility that a politician in Illinois is being less than entirely straight with us. 

Isn’t that remarkable? Isn’t that bizarre

Prosecutors at all levels—from local yokels up to the feds—are notoriously loath to prosecute ordinary straw-buyer cases. If there’s a big, juicy, organized-crime case to be made against gun traffickers, that’s another story: For example, the feds were very happy to bust up an Illinois-based gun-trafficking ring involving U.S. military personnel who were acting as full-time straw buyers for Chicago’s infamous Gangster Disciplines, an old-school crime syndicate that has been operating in Illinois since the 1960s. And they should be busting those guys. 

But most straw-buyer cases don’t look like that. Most straw buyers are girlfriends or family members of convicted criminals and other prohibited persons, and most straw purchases involve one firearm. (Or so seems to be the consensus; again, real data are difficult to find.) Straw buyers who get charged with the crime are, by definition, almost always first-time offenders, and many of them are sympathetic subjects: Did we really expect that 23-year-old mother of three to tell the felon who is the father of her children and upon whom she is financially dependent to go jump in Lake Michigan when he ordered her to go buy him a pistol? We do not instinctively want to put such offenders in prison—but that is who a great many straw buyers are.

(Similarly, try putting yourself in the place of a firearms retailer, a businessman who already has a target on his back, politically speaking—in the age of “woke” moral panic, how assertive are you going to be about somebody you suspect of being a straw buyer? Short of her preemptively confessing to the crime, are you going to tell a young black woman shopping for a 9mm semiautomatic with her boyfriend that you think she is not a prospective customer but a prospective criminal? This is your family’s livelihood, and the same people who want to put you out of business for selling guns at all will be happy to try to put you out of business on grounds of racial discrimination, however vaguely attested to. I have spoken to firearms dealers who have gone forward with sales they believed to be straw purchases precisely for that reason.)

Illinois is following the same dumb pattern we have seen from Democrat-led gun-control efforts around the country. These policies are heavy on new regulations for licensed firearms dealers, which are not a very important source for guns used in crimes (of the criminals currently in state-prison custody who were in possession of a firearm at the time of their crime, less than 2 percent acquired that firearm from a retailer) and heavy on new restrictions or prohibitions on so-called assault weapons (a term without a generally accepted definition in law or in common usage) that, in spite of the panic over them, show up rarely in violent crimes: AR-style rifles may look scary to PTA moms, but they are seldom used in violent crimes. Of the 14,000 murders that were committed in the United States in 2019, only 364 involved any kind of rifle. If we liberally assume that half of those rifle murders were done with so-called assault weapons, that puts such weapons at the scene of just over 1 percent of U.S. murders. That is not a very strong correlation: You have approximately a 1 percent chance of finding a scary black rifle at the scene of a murder in the United States but a better than 50 percent chance of finding a convicted felon at the scene—more than half of all U.S. murders are committed by an offender with a prior felony conviction. 

The Illinois ban on certain semiautomatic weapons is plainly unconstitutional and almost certainly will be overruled as such: As the Supreme Court has made clear, the Second Amendment protects firearms that are in “common use for lawful purposes,” as the court put it.  AR-pattern rifles are without question the rifle in most common use for self-defense and target shooting, and, though we do not have much data on the issue, it is almost certain that the AR-pattern rifle is also the single most common hunting rifle in the United States, used for hunting pests and small game in its traditional 5.56mm chambering and for medium to large game when chambered for more powerful rounds. (In spite of what you hear on the news, the common 5.56mm AR-pattern rifle is far from “high-powered.”) In any case, restricting or prohibiting AR-style rifles is unlikely to have any meaningful effect on crime in Illinois or anywhere else in the United States.

At the federal level, we are making stupid rules, too: The ATF has just decided to prohibit certain arm braces commonly used with handguns based on the AR platform. There is some silliness on both sides of this particular issue, but if you have read this far, you won’t mind the gun-nerdery. 

Federal law restricts “short-barreled rifles,” meaning rifles with barrels less than 16 inches in length. You can buy one, but it is kind of like buying a suppressor—you have to fill out some cumbrous federal paperwork and then wait for months (you never know how long, exactly) for Washington to process the paperwork, which is, notionally, a tax matter. (Way back when, the federal government decided to put a fig leaf over its constitutionally questionable firearms regulations by pretending that the regulation is an excise tax.) There isn’t any particular reason to restrict short-barreled rifles—generally speaking, the shorter a rifle’s barrel is, the less powerful it is. Taking a couple of inches off the length of a hunting rifle’s barrel can slow down the bullet by as much as a few hundred feet per second, depending on the cartridge and some other factors. (With a shorter barrel, there is less time for the propellant to burn completely before the bullet exits the muzzle.) Perhaps it is because of the fearsome reputation of sawed-off shotguns (this is a dumb thing to do to a shotgun, making it a less effective weapon) that somebody somewhere assumed that a short-barreled rifle (SBR) was an especially dangerous thing. Criminals (and others) used to saw off shotguns not to make them more powerful but to make them more portable, and I suppose that short-barreled rifles are more concealable than rifles with longer barrels, but they are still very large and unwieldly compared to ordinary handguns—which is why criminals so overwhelmingly prefer ordinary handguns. 

Handguns with braces that go against the wrist or forearm have been around for a while (the first of them were developed for disabled shooters, as I understand it) and, at some point, some mischievous designer figured out that you could make a “forearm brace” for a handgun that was practically undistinguishable from a shoulder stock, meaning that AR “pistols” could be sold without going through the hassles involved in selling an SBR. (You can see what I mean here.) I have no doubt that the majority of “forearm braces” I have seen attached to “pistols” in gun shops are very lightly disguised rifle stocks and that the recent prevalence of AR-style “pistols” is mainly a way to get around the SBR regulation. I also have no doubt that the SBR regulation itself is pretty dumb and should be repealed. 

But, here’s the thing: The definition of “forearm brace” is written into the relevant federal statute here—the ATF is entirely freelancing its new definition, acting as a legislator rather than as an executive agency. The ATF is not an elected lawmaking body, and it is illegitimate for it to behave as though it were one. This new regulation will be challenged in court, and the courts should rule against the ATF here, as it is exceeding its authority. 

Pistols with rifle stocks have been around forever—here is a nice 19th century example, a Colt “Buntline Special” (that probably did not belong to Wyatt Earp)—and, following the trend with other firearms that push certain cultural buttons, they are not very commonly used in crimes. 

But guns obtained through straw-buyers are commonly used in crimes. You’d think that the nation’s attorneys general and governors would respond appropriately, but you would be wrong. It is almost—almost!—as though this is not really about crime at all but is some kind of half-bright culture-war jackassery. 

Economics for English Majors

Thorstein Veblen—great name, fussy facial hair, interesting writer: He wrote The Theory of the Leisure Class (1899) and it is thanks to him that people talk about “conspicuous consumption” and, less often, “conspicuous leisure.” (“Conspicuous leisure” is a pretty good description of the life of a senator.) And it is for him that the “Veblen good,” a kind of “positional good,” is named. A Veblen good is a good for which demand goes up when the price goes up instead of going down, as you would expect. 

In classical economics, the good ol’ supply-and-demand curves tell us that the demand for any given product will fall when its price rises. But human beings are funny animals, and things don’t always work out that way. People love money, but they also love status—and when it comes down to it, they usually love status even more than money, which is why people will trade money for status or the illusion of status (for example, by buying expensive luxury goods) while trading status for money is mostly the business of over-the-hill politicians such as Newt Gingrich and Rudy Giuliani and other elderly Republican hawkers of tumescence pills and home-title insurance. 

A positional good (some Veblen goods are positional, some positional goods are Veblen, but the two are not precisely identical) is a good that is valued because of how it is distributed socially rather than for its scarcity per se. Positional goods often are status symbols. Some positional goods are literally positional: For example, it once was a common practice in some churches to lease pews as a way to raise money or to reserve pews for certain families in recognition of longstanding financial support; a highly desirable pew was not only a marker of financial means but also a marker of an old and prominent family–meaning that money alone is not enough to get one. The famous American Express Centurion card (the “black card”) is a positional good in that you have to be invited to apply for it—you can’t just walk into a shop and buy it. Invitations to the Met Gala are positional goods, etc. There are positional goods that are not exactly Veblen goods because they are not subject to much price fluctuation—these are goods that announce social connections more than mere affluence. 

Consider the career of cologne (originally “eau de Cologne,” after the German city where it was first produced by the chemist Johann Maria Farina), which once was a Veblen good, desirable because it was expensive and, hence, status-conferring. When cologne became less expensive, people began to speak contemptuously of the stench of “cheap cologne,” to complain of vulgar people wearing too much cologne (often this was part of an ethnic stereotype). You can find current references to cheap cologne (Balls of Fury: “You are so close to defeat that it already reeks of your cheap cologne”) but the complaints go back at least to the first half of the 19th century. In fact, some contemporary makers of expensive cologne are having a hard time marketing the stuff, and the word “cologne” has all but disappeared from marketing material of some cologne producers, having been replaced with the less class-anxiety-inviting words “scent” or “fragrance.” 

There is a popular story (I suspect it is not entirely true) that in the Tudor period rotten teeth were a status symbol—bad teeth mean you could afford sugar, a luxury. If that ever was true, it is not true now–people with bad teeth are the sort of people we imagine would also wear cheap cologne.

Somebody—I cannot track down the source, let me know if you know—observed that, by the late 20th century, travel had become “the cheap cologne of our time,” meaning that something that once had been a luxury for rich aristocrats taking the “grand tour” had become the common experience of every gap-year undergraduate backpacking through Thailand. It was, from one point of view, an experience hardly worth having if everybody else could have it, too. Instead of interesting stories about exotic adventures, everybody has the same story about that one hostel in Stuttgart. 

I do not much care for the excessively democratic assumptions of our time (hierarchy is good and necessary) but I am very much pleased that things that once were reserved to the high and mighty are now available to one and all. One of my little economic lectures involves The Count of Monte Cristo and a scene in which the titular count (who isn’t really a count but is very wealthy) throws a dinner party at which he awes and delights his guests by serving two kinds of fish. Dumas expends a great deal of ink detailing the ends to which the count must go to pull off that culinary coup, a “millionaire’s whim” from back when “millionaire” meant something. 

Technology is a great democratizer in its way: A $20 digital wristwatch from Walmart will keep better time than a Rolex Submariner—but Professor Veblen will have his say about that. too. (A lot of quotes I haven’t been able to track down today: Someone once wrote that the genius of Rolex was selling men jewelry while convincing them they were buying tools.) There is more to life than functionality. 

If you want to know who really has status in our society, though, consider the “brand ambassadors.” Luxury-goods companies pay Taylor Swift and David Beckham to use their products—under Veblen conditions, ordinary schmucks try to raise their status by associating themselves with certain brands, which in turn try to raise their own status as brands by associating themselves with the likes of Adam Driver or Charlize Theron. Once upon a time, Buick paid Tiger Woods $25 million to pretend to be a Buick guy and to play in some Buick-backed tournaments. But when Woods was arrested for DUI, the car that was impounded was, of course, a Mercedes. He also has a Lamborghini and some other nice Veblen-ish stuff—25 million Buick bucks go a long way. 

When it was announced that he had become the year’s highest-paid entertainer, Dwayne Johnson, good populist that he is, tweeted, “Waffle House on me!” There’s a man who knows his market. And I believe that he’s a Waffle House guy like I believe Tiger Woods drives a Buick. 

Words About Words

You may have seen the reference to a Colt “Buntline Special” above and thought to yourself: What in hell is a “buntline”? I did not—it’s a funny thing, but I suppose it is a common one: I have seen the word “buntline” in print for years and years and years and never once stopped to think about what it means. Because a buntline—properly uppercase, Buntline—is set up for long-distance shooting (long barrel, shoulder stock, a revolver with a generally rifle-like profile) I assumed “buntline” was some kind of old settler slang for a boundary or something like that. But I never really thought about it.

The Buntline, as it turns out, was named for Mr. Buntline. 

Ned Buntline was the pen name of Western author Edward Zane Carroll Judson, who, according to one questionable account, made friends with Wyatt Earp and other figures of that kidney and then made a living passing on the stories they told him, creating legendary (and highly fictionalized) accounts of the lives of famous figures of the Old West. In reality, Buntline probably did not know Earp at all—an early attempt to interview “Wild Bill” Hickok so annoyed the subject that Wild Bill pulled a gun on the pest and gave him an old-fashioned “get out of town before sundown” ultimatum. Buntline did spend time with “Buffalo Bill” Cody, and even went so far as to take credit for giving him that nickname. Buntline, like many writers, was a habitual liar, a veritable George Santos of the late 19th century. 

Buntline’s friendships, real and imagined, made him a literary and financial success, and, like an NFL quarterback buying a fleet of Rolexes for his offensive line, Buntline allegedly repaid his sources (Wyatt Earp, Bat Masterson, Bill Tilghman, Charlie Bassett, and Neal Brown, according to the story) with a token of his friendship in the form of five identical revolvers he commissioned from Colt—all of which had the unusually long barrels that the name “Buntline” now denotes. Those long barrels made the revolvers unwieldy, and four out of the five recipients of those Buntline Specials apparently had the barrels cut down to standard length, except for Wyatt Earp. The design was revived and copied here and there, often with a removable shoulder stock that helped a shooter to make the most out of that long barrel. 

Buntline lived a terrible but terribly colorful life: at least six wives, at least one deadly duel, an arrest after an infamous Know-Nothing riot, business failures that took him to the verge of bankruptcy until he bailed himself out by successfully tracking down a brace of murderers and collecting a bounty on them, that sort of thing. He fought in the Seminole Wars but was not chief of scouts in the Indian Wars, as he sometimes claimed to have been. He was a heavy drinker who at one point made his living touring the country giving temperance lectures. (The devoted fabulist was a Republican, and, in that at least, ahead of the curve.) Buntline was one of the highest-earning American authors of his time, but his wife had to sell the family home after his death to settle his debts. 

So, there’s the “Buntline Special.” 

Other proper-noun shenanigans . . . 

There is no such thing as “German chocolate cake.” Some of you may have had the dessert and thought to yourselves, “I didn’t know that they had coconuts in Germany,” coconut being an important constituent of the cake. In reality, there is nothing German about “German chocolate cake,” which is more properly “German’s chocolate cake,” after German’s Chocolate, the Anglo-American company that included the original recipe with its chocolate, rather like the case of Toll House cookies. 

Another similar proper-noun evolution is the expression, “More x than Carter has pills.” Who is this Carter, and why does he have so many pills? Is it Jimmy Carter? Is he sick? (There is no medicine for what ails Jimmy Carter, but if he has not figured it out by age 98, he isn’t going to.) You’ll sometimes hear the expression as “more than Carter’s has pills,” which is a clue: The expression refers to “Carter’s Little Liver Pills,” a former patent-medicine concern. The company has been around since the 19th century and was forced to remove “Liver” from its name by the Federal Trade Commission in 1951. “Carter’s Little Pills” survives into our time as a bisacodyl-based laxative. It is amusing that Carter’s has made its way from 19th-century medicine shows to Amazon—history is very short, if you look at it from the right point of view. 

Elsewhere

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In Closing

Some 453 years ago today, James Stewart, Earl of Moray and regent for the infant King James VI, was assassinated—the first known case of a head of state being assassinated by means of a firearm. A conservative is someone who believes that human nature has no history, that we are what we always have been and always will be, that mankind will successfully resist all efforts at improvement. Gun violence has been around as long as there have been guns—that’s what guns are for, and we had sword violence before that, spear violence, club violence, rock-to-the-head violence. In a world with people and no guns, there would be murder, and lots of it—but in a world with guns and no people, there would be no murder at all. We are the problem. We always have been.  

Kevin D. Williamson is national correspondent at The Dispatch and is based in Virginia. Prior to joining the company in 2022, he spent 15 years as a writer and editor at National Review, worked as the theater critic at the New Criterion, and had a long career in local newspapers. He is also a writer in residence at the Competitive Enterprise Institute. When Kevin is not reporting on the world outside Washington for his Wanderland newsletter, you can find him at the rifle range or reading a book about literally almost anything other than politics.