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Pennsylvania tries a new initiative to curb illegal gun purchases

Miles Bryan Sep 11, 2019
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Dorothy Johnson-Speight holds a picture of her son, Khaaliq. He was fatally shot in Philadelphia in 2001 by a neighbor who was a convicted felon and should not have been able to own a gun.
Miles Bryan for Marketplace

Many gun crimes are committed by people who were already legally prohibited from owning a firearm. One study, which looked at people incarcerated for crimes committed with a firearm in states with the least stringent criteria for gun ownership, found that 40% of those offenders were already prohibited from firearm possession prior to their crime.

One of the most common ways guns are obtained illegally is through what’s known as a straw purchase. That is when someone purchases a firearm on behalf of someone else who is legally prohibited from making the buy themselves.

Federal restrictions on data sharing make it difficult to get definitive stats on how many gun buys are straw purchases. But a report to the U.S. Department of Justice that reviewed gun data in Maryland suggests women are more likely than men to make those purchases. According to the study, “Although females engage in less crime than do males, the findings suggest they are more likely to act as straw purchasers who buy on behalf of illegal buyers.”

One group has been reaching out to women about the dangers of making a straw purchase. Operation LIPSTICK (Ladies Involved in Putting a Stop to Inner-City Killing), goes to places like beauty salons, churches, and high schools to talk to women and teenage girls about the risks — up to ten years in prison under federal law.

The group is based in Boston, and has done some work in California. Now it’s expanding to Philadelphia, thanks to a $123,000 grant from the state’s Office of Attorney General. Still, addressing women’s roles in straw purchases will only go so far — according to Charlene Hennessy, Public Information Officer for the Philadelphia Field Division of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, most guns found to be used in a crime in Pennsylvania were originally purchased by men.

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