It’s easier to lie and get a gun than lie and get a credit card; the real problem with background checks

bryant art

Quantrey Bryant wasn’t a suspected terrorist, but he was a convicted felon, and felons aren’t supposed to be able to buy guns.  But from an Alabama jail cell, using smuggled cell phones, stolen credit card data, online websites, and straw buyers, Bryant was able to set up a guns-for-money crime ring, federal authorities say.  He ultimately used crude forms of identity theft to evade background checks and buy dozens of guns with other people’s money, including several AR-15s — the assault rifle in several mass shootings recently.

Bryant’s case highlights a problem with America’s gun purchase process that’s far more fundamental than the background check loopholes now being debated in Congress.

At a time when Little League volunteers are forced to submit fingerprints and online banking customers must answer arcane questions should they forget their passwords, there is essentially no modern identify verification conducted as part of a gun transaction. The simplest forms of identity theft can foil the process nearly 100 percent of the time.

In other words, it’s easier to lie and get a gun than lie and get a credit card in America. 

No one trying to reform America’s process for selling guns should proceed without learning the lessons offered by Bryant’s story: The fact that a felon plotting from jail could buy guns online with stolen credit card information and hire a straw buyers to pick them up shows how porous the background check process really is.

In 2013, Bryant was nearing the end of five long years in an Alabama prison — he’d been convicted of two second-degree robberies in 2008 — but he had a plan to set himself up for freedom. He had a source inside high-end retailer Smith+Noble, and in August 2012, she started feeding him stolen credit and debit card data.  He’d managed to get cell phones into his cell – he was accused of having five of them back in 2010 – and began committing identity theft from there.  At first, he used the credit and debit card data to put money into other inmates’ accounts.  Then he set his sights on larger crimes. He directed co-conspirators to set up used car sales at a local auto auction house. When time came to pay for the cars, Bryant’s partners directed the seller to call Bryant, who “paid” for the cars over the phone using new credit cards he’d tricked banks into issuing.

On a Twitter account that appears to belong to Bryant, the identity thief seems to brag about his enterprise.  In May 2012, he Tweeted:

“Don’t judge me I ain’t on the streets and I’m still getting money.”

But as freedom crept closer, Bryant turned his attention to buying guns.

In February 2013, Bryant was transferred out of Alabama Department of Correction Facilities into the custody of Jefferson County Community Corrections.  He was allowed to complete the final month of his sentence at his mother’s home, while under supervision of a community corrections officer. He was formally released from custody on March 19. But his online gun-buying splurge had already begun.

On March 12, Bryant ordered three pistols from an online gun website (I have decided not to name).  The orders were placed in the name of Curtis Glen Robinson, who would later plead guilty to aiding Bryant.  Neither the indictment nor the plea agreement make clear how the transaction was funded, other than indicating that stolen credit/debit card information was used.

Michael Knight, a spokesman for the Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms Nashville Field Division, said he believes Bryant was able to obtain new credit cards in the name of straw buyers to facilitate the sale and dupe the online gun shops.  Bryant’s lawyer, Alison Wallace, said she believed Bryant paid using credit cards in the victim’s name; or that sales were completed using pre-paid debit cards purchased with the stolen credit cards.

But in one case, the plea agreement says, a gun purchase was paid for with a Capital One credit card in a victim’s name — meaning an online gun dealer shipped a gun to a buyer who was clearly paying with a third-party credit card, which would seem to raise a red flag. It did not.

Bryant still had a seemingly large barrier to overcome to receive the guns.  While it’s legal to buy guns online in the U.S., guns cannot be shipped directly from online gun shops to consumers. Instead, they must be shipped to a local licensed gun dealer, so that dealer can conduct the required background check.  That’s supposed to prevent felons or others on the prohibited list from acquiring guns online. Ultimately, this proved no hurdle at all: Robinson served as Bryant’s ”straw buyer.” Robinson went into the gun shop, said he was buying guns, filled out the requisite paperwork, known as Form 4473, and picked up the guns. Within two days, Bryant was in the gun dealing business.

The guns were sold for cash on the street, federal authorities allege.

Two weeks later, Bryant got bolder. He ordered a rifle and two pistols from the same website, this time having them sent to a different dealer, where Robinson again picked them up. On April 9, he ordered a Bushmaster AR-15, another rifle, and a pistol and had them sent to a third dealer. More AR-15s and about two dozen other guns followed.

A trivial hack

Given the way background checks work, it’s actually hard to see how Bryant’s crime scheme would have unraveled on its own.  Everyone, on every side of the gun control debate, understands that the Form 4473 process is trivial to hack.

The simple form requires purchasers to declare who they are, that they have no criminal felony record, and that they are not purchasing the gun for someone who does. Some kind of ID is required, and purchasers generally use a driver’s license, but the rules give dealers flexibility. And while dealers then contact either the FBI or a state agency to see if the purchaser has a felony record, there is no system in place to verify the identity of the purchaser.

It’s easy to lie on the application. In many cases, only a shop owner’s intuition stands between a would-be felon committing identity theft, and a gun.

Both sides of the gun debate have heavily criticized the background check process.  Gun rights supporters even have funded a campaign called “Dont Lie For the Other Guy,” which includes billboard advertising and a website, reminding locals that buying a gun for someone else is a felony.

In fact, there’s a “Don’t Lie” link prominently on the home page of the first online gun dealer Bryant used.

Still, it’s a widespread problem, Knight said. Some felons recruit college students to buy guns for them. Many don’t understand the severity of the crime.

“It’s an issue that occurs all across the country,” Knight said. “There are not any specific laws or measures in place that curtail this issue.”

The ease of using straw buyers is one place where background checks fall short; but a lesser-known problem is the ease of lying on Form 4473, a phenomenon known as “lie and try to buy.”

“(The background check) is based on completing a form. If the individual completes the form and falsifies the information” it’s unlikely to be discovered, Knight said.    “Usually how we find out is that a gun is recovered in a criminal offense. That’s when it comes out that someone has lied on the form.”

While only about 0.5 percent of the roughly 20 million firearms background checks result in a rejection, that still amounts to roughly 100,000 potential criminals annually — applying to purchase a gun when you are ineligible is a crime. Yet prosecutions for lying are extremely rare.

Occasionally, this lack of prosecution has become a public issue. In April of 2013, Rep. Bob Goodlatte of Virginia said the Obama administration should work harder to enforce existing gun control laws rather than try to write new ones, saying enforcement was “down 40 percent” during the current administration. It was a half-truth, given the tiny number of prosecutions overall — which had dropped from 100 under the Bush administration to around 60 under Obama — but it hinted at a larger truth: There is essentially no penalty for lying on a gun background check.

There are plenty of ways for felons and the mentally unfit to get guns without resorting to identity theft.  It’s legal in many places to buy guns at trade shows without submitting to a background check. Guns bought through private sales, using newspaper ads or Craigslist, successfully avoid background checks.

But the ease of using straw men, and the lack of any identity verification by gun dealers, throws into serious question the efficacy of the entire background check process.

It’s not a new concern. Back in 2001, investigators from the General Accounting Office were able to buy guns in Arizona, Montana, New Mexico, Virginia and West Virginia using fake driver licenses.  Their success rate was 100 percent. A scathing report, named “Lying and Buying,” grabbed headlines, but little was done to plug the hole.

A few states layer additional requirements on top of federal background check laws. Some states — including Maryland, New York, and New Jersey — require fingerprints, for example.

But in most places, gun shops have responsibility to question the identity of a gun purchaser. Most are required to ask for an ID that is “commonly accepted for the purpose of identification,” but standards vary. In an open letter written by the ATF to gun dealers in 2011, designed to clarify that documents which include only a P.O. Box for an address are not sufficient, the ATF explains this meager standard:

“Ask the purchaser if the address indicated on the identification document is the actual residence address, receive an affirmative response, and have no reason to believe the address on the identification document is not the actual, legal residence address of the purchaser,” it says.

The National Rifleman’s Association is among the groups that has criticized the background process as flimsy.

“If we are not going to enforce the laws that are on the books, it not only engenders disrespect for the law but it makes law-abiding gun owners wonder why we are going through this exercise we are going through now,” said Jim Baker, an  NRA spokesman.

If Bryant and his straw buyers and his stolen credit card data never ran into a problem getting guns, it does make one wonder why the background check exercise exists at all.  And not surprisingly, it never caught Bryant. Instead, his run as a gun dealer was cut short only because he was caught breaking into cars.  Police arrested Bryant on April 14, 2014, and he was later charged with a series of break-ins from March 21 to May 9 of that year. Investigation of that crime turned up the credit card fraud and the gun deals, Knight said.

“It all started to unravel at that point.  We put all the pieces together,” he said.

America is still struggling mightily to put the pieces of sensible gun control together.  While it seems obvious to ban suspected terrorists from buying weapons, the no-fly list and larger watch list are so riddled with errors – and bereft of a reasonable appeals process – that even the ACLU agrees it’s a bad idea to use no-fly as no-gun. Frustrating as it might sound, Orlando killer Omar Mateen wasn’t on either list anyway, so that kind of expansion of background checks wouldn’t have prevented the Orlando mass murder, and it is unlikely to prevent the next one.

As Bryant’s case demonstrates, there are far too many ways for criminals to evade it. Without some way to know who is actually buying guns – without reasonably modern authentication — any required background process in the age of identity theft is pure security theater.

Solving this issue will be politically challenging, however.  The inefficacy of the background check process can be used by both sides of the gun control issue to score points.  The NRA can oppose expansion by saying it would be ineffective. Gun control supporters can argue that only a completely overhaul — perhaps requiring fingerprints for all purchases — would work, but bold proposals are often destined to fail in Washington D.C., which thrives on its own form of theater.

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About Bob Sullivan 1648 Articles
BOB SULLIVAN is a veteran journalist and the author of four books, including the 2008 New York Times Best-Seller, Gotcha Capitalism, and the 2010 New York Times Best Seller, Stop Getting Ripped Off! His latest, The Plateau Effect, was published in 2013, and as a paperback, called Getting Unstuck in 2014. He has won the Society of Professional Journalists prestigious Public Service award, a Peabody award, and The Consumer Federation of America Betty Furness award, and been given Consumer Action’s Consumer Excellence Award.

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