Gun Trafficking Laws | Straw Purchases | Gun Smuggling

gun trafficking laws

Federal Gun Trafficking Laws

Illegally-obtained firearms often show up in federal drug crimes and conspiracies, so it should come as no surprise that the federal government is very interested in the prosecution of gun trafficking. These activities are commonly prosecuted under 18 USC 922 and 18 USC 554.

The Iron Pipeline

The ATF estimates that around 50,000 guns are being diverted to criminals across state lines every year. The ATF also attributes a great deal of illegal gun trafficking to the Iron Pipeline, which is the I-95 corridor stretching from the Southern United States to the Mid-Atlantic and New England states.

What Is Gun Trafficking?

Gun trafficking is the diversion of guns from a lawful commerce stream into the illegal market. Broadly speaking, gun trafficking includes the following:

Straw Purchasers

A straw purchaser is someone who buys a firearm for another person, most often because the other person is unable to pass a federal background check or does not want their name associated with the gun. We will discuss straw purchasers in detail in this article as it is the primary focus of federal prosecutors.

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Unlicensed Sellers

Federal law prohibits a person who is not a gun dealer from selling their guns online, at gun shows, or anywhere else. The licensing requirement exists so the Government knows that only individuals who are legally eligible to purchase a firearm are given the opportunity to do so.

Gun Dealers

Believe it or not, licensed firearms dealers are linked to a large amount of illegally-diverted guns in the world today. While most gun dealers strictly adhere to federal laws governing the sale of firearms, some sell firearms “off the books” and use their knowledge of federal firearm laws to subvert detection.

Selling Guns Online / Smuggling Firearms

Sometimes guns are sold online without documentation through the Dark Web using the Tor Browser. If a person is caught illegally selling firearms online, they may be prosecuted for a variety of firearm offenses including, most commonly, for possessing a firearm from which the manufacturer’s serial number has been removed, altered and obliterated, which was shipped and transported in interstate and foreign commerce, in violation of Title 18, United States Code, Sections 922(k) and 924(a)(1)(B). Exporting a gun from which the manufacturer’s serial number is removed is violation of Title 18, United States Code, Section 554

What is a Straw Purchase in Gun Sales?

A straw purchase occurs when one person uses someone else (the straw purchaser) to file all the necessary paperwork for the purchase of a gun without disclosing who the firearm is actually being purchased for. A gun dealer is required to have a Federal Firearm License (FFL) to sell gun, and they must have a completed ATF Form 4473 for each sale. Form 4473 provides the Government with information about the purchaser of the gun. Making a false statement on Form 4473 is a federal offense. Straw purchasers are prosecuted under Title 18, United States Code, Sections 924(a)(1)(A) and 2 for making a false statement on Form 4473.

Form 4473 also warns applicants that they must be the actual buyer and the dealer cannot transfer the firearm to you if you are not the actual buyer. In fact, in Abramski v. United States, the Supreme Court decided it irrelevant whether the straw purchaser purchased the firearm for someone who is legally eligible to purchase the firearm for themselves.

That being said, most straw purchases are made for individuals who are prohibited from purchasing firearms themselves. This is a major problem that the ATF and so the Legislature has imposed harsh penalties for straw purchases.

What is the Punishment for Straw Purchases?

Purchasing a gun for another person who is prohibited from possessing a firearm is a federal criminal offense that can be punished by up to 10 years in prison and up to a $250,000 fine.

What is the Punishment for Smuggling Firearms out of the United States?

Smuggling firearms from the United States is punishable by up to 10 years in prison and up to a $250,000 fine.

Gun Trafficking In Texas

Texas Penal Code 46.14 prohibits the smuggling of firearms, which means knowingly taking part in the business of transferring or transporting a firearm that the individuals know was bought in violation of either federal or Texas law. A person is considered to engage in the business of transporting or transferring firearms if the individual takes part in such conduct on multiple occasions, or if they do it for profit, etc. This is a third degree felony, punishable by up to 10 years in prison.

Asset Forfeiture

Both federal and Texas law allows prosecutors to seize and forfeit assets of individuals charged with a violation of gun trafficking or smuggling laws. This includes taking any money or bank accounts prosecutors can allege are the “proceeds” of illegal activity.

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FIREARM SMUGGLING is defined in Section 46.14 of the Texas Penal Code:

(a)  A person commits an offense if the person knowingly engages in the business of transporting or transferring a firearm that the person knows was acquired in violation of the laws of any state or of the United States.  For purposes of this subsection, a person is considered to engage in the business of transporting or transferring a firearm if the person engages in that conduct:

(1)  on more than one occasion; or

(2)  for profit or any other form of remuneration.

(b)  An offense under this section is a felony of the third degree, unless it is shown on the trial of the offense that the offense was committed with respect to three or more firearms in a single criminal episode, in which event the offense is a felony of the second degree.

(c)  This section does not apply to a peace officer who is engaged in the actual discharge of an official duty.

(d)  If conduct that constitutes an offense under this section also constitutes an offense under any other law, the actor may be prosecuted under this section, the other law, or both.


Benson Varghese

Managing Partner at Varghese Summersett PLLC
Benson Varghese is the founder and Managing Partner of Varghese Summersett PLLC. He is a prolific writer and has authored hundreds of articles about criminal law in Texas and at the Federal level. His articles have been featured in the Wall Street Journal, Above the Law, and have been selected as Top Blogs by the State Bar of Texas. He was named the Young Lawyer of the Year in 2019 by the Tarrant County Bar Association. Benson led the firm to become one of the 500 fastest growing businesses in the United States by Inc 500 Magazine in 2018. In the same year, the firm was named the Best Law Firm in Fort Worth by the Fort Worth Star-Telegram. The lawyers at Varghese Summersett PLLC exclusively handle criminal defense matters.
Benson Varghese