Weapon Awareness

A partnership between the feds and a firearms trade group attempts to keep guns out of the hands of criminals

U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder is one of the "Anti-Gun Foursome," according to the National Shooting Sports Foundation (NSSF), which labels itself as "the trade association for the firearms industry." He joins Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi and U.S. Sen. Diane Feinstein with that distinction.

Yet the foundation is currently partnering with the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF), a federal agency overseen by Holder, on a gun program in Tucson.

"No comment," replies William Newell, of the ATF office in Phoenix, about this apparent contradiction. "That's a hot-button topic."

But Newell has no reservations about expounding on the Don't Lie for the Other Guy program, which ATF, the NSSF and others are now conducting in Tucson.

"The main purpose of the program," Newell explains, "is to get guns out of the hands of criminals and protect the rights (of law-abiding gun owners).

Newell describes Don't Lie for the Other Guy as a public-education program in English and Spanish that spreads the message about the penalties for so-called "straw gun purchases." These are transactions in which a third party buys guns for criminals, gang members or even Mexican drug dealers.

"Putting guns in the hands of violent criminals is what we're trying to avoid," Newell says.

As an example, three men were arrested last year in Phoenix for, among other things, operating a straw-purchasing scheme. Their clients were allegedly a Mexican drug cartel.

"A lot of people need the money," Newell says about the middlemen in these straw purchases, "and don't realize the (impact)." He says one of the objectives of the joint program is to educate these people "that the money isn't worth it."

Others involved in straw gun purchases, Newell says, may simply be duped into participating.

"We don't want to put (the middlemen) in jail," Newell continues, "but start our investigation with them and work our way up. The penalty can be five to 10 years in jail and up to a $250,000 fine."

According to a recent ABC News report: "In the last five years, ATF has arrested more than 6,000 people for participating in such scams." The agency also identified at least 700 instances in which dealers were apparently selling guns illegally.

For nine years, ATF and the NSSF have co-sponsored the Don't Lie for the Other Guy program in cities around the country. Traditionally, the two shared the cost, but this summer, the industry group is paying for it in communities along the southern border of the United States.

In Tucson, in addition to numerous billboard advertisements and public-service announcements, Newell met with dozens of local gun-shop owners last month to explain the program; he also distributed education kits.

In the past, some have noted that gun shows seem to be primarily advertised on Tucson's southside—and that appears to be the case with Don't Lie for the Other Guy. An analysis of a partial list of the program's billboard locations shows that more than half are on 22nd Street or farther south. Those locations include a billboard on which one panel promotes a gun show, the other the anti-straw purchase program.

It's unclear how successful the program has been; Newell acknowledges there's no way of judging the results. "It's a good question, about how you measure the impact," he says.

Despite that uncertainty, Newell calls it a "great" program. He also says: "I applaud the NSSF for their blitz along the Southwest border this summer."

Agreeing with Newell about both the program's positives and its uncertainties is Ted Novin, spokesman for the NSSF.

"In trying to quantify results," Novin asks, "do you use the number of people caught, or the fewer arrests made? It's difficult to quantify or determine success from that perspective."

Novin also points out that federal research has shown that less than 10 percent of illegally possessed guns are acquired through straw purchases. Most, he says, come from black-market buys or from family members.

Yet in their joint Aug. 13 press release announcing the Tucson program, the groups prominently proclaimed that the current campaign would "reduce significantly the illegal straw purchases of firearms in Tucson."

Despite that contradiction, Novin says his industry wants to keep a focus on straw purchases. To accomplish that goal, the NSSF has locally put up more than $100,000. For four weeks—or possibly longer, depending upon circumstances—these funds purchased about 90 billboards while also paying for public-service announcements and a press conference.

After Tucson, the effort will move to San Diego.

After nine years, Novin says of the Don't Lie for the Other Guy program: "It's done a tremendous amount to raise awareness."

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