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Collins Touts Bill Targeting 'Straw Purchase' of Guns
03/05/2013   Reported By: Jay Field

Maine Sen. Susan Collins' support for a bipartisan bill to fight firearms trafficking highlights the tricky, post-Newtown politics of gun violence facing some lawmakers from rural, gun-friendly states. The measure, unveiled late Monday, would make it a federal crime to illegally traffick in guns, or to buy a firearm and give it to someone who isn't legally allowed to have it - a practice called straw purchasing. Collins is taking a lead role in pushing the bill, and as Jay Field reports, that has her walking a fine line between confronting the issue of gun violence and maintaining the support of 2nd Amendment backers at home.

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Collins Touts Bill Targeting 'Straw Purchase' of G Listen

Shortly after the Connecticut school shootings, Susan Collins released a statement. It it, she wrote words that sounded a lot like the ones she uttered at the end of her short speech last night on the floor of the U.S. Senate.

"Our bill will help to keep guns out of the hands of criminals, without infringing, in any way, on the 2nd Amendment rights of law abiding citizens," she said.

Since Newtown, Maine's senior U.S. senator has tried to empathize with both sides in the contentious debate over gun violence. But that hasn't stopped the NRA and gun control advocates from pressuring Collins with competing newspaper ads in recent weeks, as debate escalates over President Obama's proposals to ban assault weapons and high capacity magazines.

The bill Collins is backing, though, takes a different approach - one that may have a better chance of making it through a divided Congress. For the first time, it would make illegal gun trafficking and straw purchases of firearms stand-alone, federal crimes.

"These guns are frequently sold, re-sold and trafficked across state lines, resulting in the proliferation of illegal firearms in our communities," Collins says.

"You can't really state, with any accuracy, the total number of firearms that are straw purchased, because these violations go undetected, sometimes, by law enforcement and the firearms industry, by gun shops," says Deb Siefert, a special agent with the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms in the agency's Boston office.

Under current law, ATF agents have to prove that someone made a false statement on a firearms transaction form. "Another term we use is lying and buying," Siefert says. "And it's a crime, and the person is charged because they're falsifying a form or they're falsifying information."

A conviction can result in a $250,000 fine and up to 10 years in jail under the federal Gun Control Act. But federal authorities have long complained that the charge is often peceived as a paperwork violation and that the potential sentence isn't a strong enough deterrant.

Under the bill Collins is co-sponsoring, a person who engages in a straw purchase could get up to 25 years in prison, if the defendant had reason to believe the gun would be used to commit a violent crime.

"From a law enforcement perspective, on the local side, we'll take all the help we can get," says Mike Sauschuck, Portland's police chief. Sauschuck says law enforcement in other parts of New England tell him that guns originating in Maine are being trafficked into their states.

But Sauschuck says tougher laws on straw purchases aren't the best strategy for confronting the problem. "Because we don't require universal background checks, I could be a prohibited person and go to a gun show in the state of Maine and just buy one, because nobody is going to run a check on me, one way or the other," he says.

But as of now, U.S. Sen. Susan Collins does not support universal background checks. And Mark Brewer, who teaches political science at UMaine Orono, doesn't expect that to change.

"There's very little reason for her to support anything that could be seen by gun rights supporters as a significant infringement on their rights," Brewer says.

Collins, a moderate Republican, faces the voters again in 2014. Brewer says it's unlikely that she would do anything to upset all the gun rights supporters who've supported her in the past - and look poised to do so again.


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