How to Spot and Prevent a Straw Purchase

Spotting and preventing a straw purchase is vital for retailers. Here are three keys for spotting and preventing it.
How to Spot and Prevent a Straw Purchase

There’s a great deal of responsibility that comes with owning a firearm. There’s also an incredible amount of responsibility that comes with selling a firearm.

While federal 4473 forms and NICS checks are required and standard for all sales, the human interaction of store employees with gun customers is the single most valuable tool to ensure guns don’t fall into the hands of bad actors. No more valuable skill can be developed by counter sales employees than learning to recognize a straw purchase.

Here are several tips for spotting a straw purchase.

Beware Of “Helpers”

A lot of friends come along when someone they know is buying a gun. The only thing better than purchasing a new firearm for yourself is helping a friend. But when the friend is doing more of the shopping than the buyer, it should set off an alarm. In the case I talked about, the Talker went so far as to answer questions I directly and obviously asked of his "quiet friend." There’s a fine line between helping and dominating the purchase. Establish who is buying the gun, then make that person the focus of your discussion. If another customer tries to dominate the conversation, there may be a problem.

Watch Body Language

Far more is communicated in how we act than what we say. If a customer is nervous, it will show through actions sooner than through answers. If you ask a question to the buyer and they look at their “helper” before answering, that’s a red flag. If they avoid eye contact when asking or answering a question, that’s a red flag. If the person doesn’t feel comfortable, it will show. Making a straw purchase is a federal crime. Generally, those who are actually willing to commit a federal crime are going to have some nervous energy. It should be pretty noticable. Be on the lookout for it.

Trust Your Gut

Sometimes a situation just doesn’t feel right. When in doubt, trust your gut. Losing a sale is a small price to pay compared to the fines, sanctions and possible jail time for completing a straw purchase.

If your employee suspects a straw purchase, make sure he or she knows how to handle the situation.

The tool kit available for the "Don't Lie for the Other Guy" campaign.

The NSSF, along with the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (BATFE), Department of Justice (DOJ) and Office of Justice Programs (OJP), started “Don’t Lie for the Other Guy” in July 2000. The campaign was designed to prevent and discourage illegal straw purchases. The campaign aims to not only provide better education for firearms retailers, but also to make the general public aware of the laws and penalties associated with making a straw purchase.

NSSF employee Michael Bazinet spends a lot of time focusing on the "Don’t Lie for the Other Guy" campaign.

“The firearms industry is proud of our longstanding cooperative relationship with the ATF and the entire law enforcement community by assisting them in their efforts to combat criminal acquisition,” he said. “At all our events announcing ‘Don’t Lie’ regional public awareness campaigns, such as those in Pittsburgh, Cincinnati, Nashville and Tampa, the commitment of our retailers providing the announcement venues and the presence of federal, county and local law enforcement officials standing shoulder-to-shoulder in support pf the program speak volumes about its importance to our industry.”

Retailers can receive a tool kit from the "Don’t Lie for the Other Guy" campaign that includes the Don’t Lie DVD: A Retailers Guide to Recognizing and Deterring Straw Purchases, as well as signage and posters for their store. For more details about the campaign, or to get your own "Don’t Lie for the Other Guy" tool kit, visit

Straw purchases continue to be one of the biggest hurdles in keeping firearms from criminals. Proper education for store employees and their vigilance are the best defense.

Straw Purchasing 101

After college, I worked for a time behind the gun counter at a big-box retailer. During my time there most of the transactions I was part of were routine. There was, however, one day that something didn’t seem right.

Two gentlemen approached the gun counter and starting asking some general questions. One did the majority of talking. His English was pretty good, but there was an accent I couldn’t place.

The Talker was asking mostly about shotguns. He said they wanted to go squirrel hunting. When I asked about hunter’s education he dodged the question to put the focus back on the guns. It was at this point that my suspicion got ratcheted up a notch.

“What about that one?”

The Talker pointed to a Mossberg 590A tactical shotgun. My radar immediately went off.

“Barrel length is too short. That’s not a hunting shotgun,” I answered. I was working hard to not give away that I was suspicious.

“Oh, OK, that’s fine. These look good, too.” The Talker returned his focus to the more traditional-looking shotguns. “He’ll take that one,” pointing to a Mossberg 500 combo.

His friend had said next to nothing leading up to this point. Something was off. A lot of people would have already turned them away. I know people in shops that as soon as they suspect something is off, they ask them to leave the store. Doing that means you know nothing about the people.

“All right, well, we have some paperwork to fill out,” I remarked as I pulled a 4473 form from the folder.

Many people go shopping for a gun with a friend, but if the friend is too eager or seems to be the one directing the transaction, stay alert. It could be a straw purchase.

The Talker’s friend worked slowly filling it out. Several times the Talker tried to ask me questions about the form. I informed him that I could not help him fill out the form, and that he couldn’t help his friend either. The Talker was getting noticeably frustrated with me.His friend handed me the completed form while the Talker milled around the fishing area, obviously trying to avoid me at this point.

I reviewed the form as I made my way to the phone to make the NICS call. The "quiet friend" was a resident alien. If he and his friend grew up together, I now knew the origin of the accent I was having trouble placing. The "quiet friend" was from Bosnia.

I was relieved when the NICS operator informed me that the transaction had been delayed. I now had a solid reason for not allowing the purchase to take place. More importantly, I also had the information of at least half of this suspicious duo I was questionable of that were possibly trying to complete a straw purchase.

The Talker returned to the counter when he saw me hang up the phone. When I informed them of the delay and what that meant, he became irate. More than once he asked if there was any way they could leave with the shotgun today. When my answer didn’t change, he stormed off. The "quiet friend" stood there for a second, unsure what to do before following.

As was store protocol, I reported the incident to my manager. Anytime there was a suspected straw purchase, we alerted our manager, who made our district loss prevention officer aware. Additionally, we contacted several other gun stores in the area to let them know what happened so they could be on the lookout.

We didn’t have to wait long for the attempt to be made again.

Near the end of my shift, the Talker returned with a new friend. He was giving the same song and dance to a different employee who hadn’t been there earlier in the day. I was working a mid-day cover shift, so I suspect he thought I would have been gone when they returned. Unfortunately, when the Talker saw me, he and his new friend made an excuse to leave. It would have been nice to get the new friend’s information, but they left before we had that chance.

The reaction of seeing me again, however, only cemented in my mind, and that of my manager and loss prevention officer, that they were up to no good. I’ll never know for sure, but I firmly believe that we kept firearms out of the hands of bad people that day.

As straw purchases go, this one was pretty obvious. Part of the reason it was so obvious was because our store had taken the time to educate us on the signs of a straw purchase. Management made sure that everyone understood the protocol to follow if we suspect a straw purchase is being made. Educate your employees on these signs, and let them know how to react in that scenario.


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