• Guest blog by Mike Humphrey, Pima County Board of Health

Firearm-related violence is a public health and safety threat to all Pima County residents.  According to the Pima County Health Department, in 2022, 226 persons died as a result of firearm violence in Pima County. Thus far in 2023, 146 have perished.

AzPHA Report: Firearm Violence in Arizona: Data to Support Prevention Policies

Firearm-related violence represents a staggering human and economic cost locally. In 2022, there were 533 hospital and emergency visits costing $33,107,484. 70% of these costs were covered by public funds. 

In 2010, the Centers for Disease Control estimated that medical and work loss costs for firearm-related violence in Arizona averaged over $1 million per victim.  Other significant firearm-related violence costs that are not accounted for in this estimate include:  emergency response, law enforcement, criminal justice, incarceration, and quality of life. 

Straw purchasers – those persons who illegally sell or transfer a firearm – are a major source of firearms to prohibited possessors – those individuals who cannot legally own a firearm. Prohibited possessors commit a significant percentage of firearm-related crimes in Pima County, according to the Pima County Attorney’s Office.

The criminal use of firearms contributes to high numbers of deaths and/or injuries, constituting a public health crisis on both sides of the international border. 

Arizona Revised Statutes 13-3102 A (5) specifically prohibits the selling or transfer of a firearm to a prohibited possessor – also known as a straw purchase or gift. This state statute gives local law enforcement not only the authority, but the responsibility to enforce this law.

While the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF&E) is responsible for enforcing federal straw purchase laws, this agency has been without a permanent director until recently and has been grossly underfunded for many years. The agency’s staffing for southern Arizona has been reduced from 6 to 3 agents.

The most current data available provided by the U.S. Government Accountability Office reports that only 12 persons were prosecuted nationally for straw purchases by the ATF&E in 2017. 

In Pima County, it has been estimated that a straw purchase is attempted daily at local Federal Firearm License (FFL) dealers. This estimate does not include firearms obtained from private sellers. Clearly, the problem is growing and of such magnitude that local law enforcement agencies, working in conjunction with State and Federal authorities, must take a more active role in the apprehension and prosecution of these offenders. 

Policy Recommendation

A joint task force should be created, comprised of federal, state and local law enforcement agencies to identify and charge persons engaged in transferring or selling firearms to prohibited possessors, using all applicable state and federal laws.

Prior to this enhanced enforcement of straw purchase laws, it is recommended that an Arizona- specific public information campaign be implemented aimed at warning potential straw purchasers of the legal and financial ramifications of their activities. 

Unlike most Second Amendment related issues here in Arizona, this does not require the passage of new legislation.  Also noteworthy is that people from all sides of the Second Amendment issue want to see firearms taken out of the arms of criminals. which is what enhanced enforcement of straw purchase laws would accomplish. 

These steps, if implemented would help reduce the incidence of straw purchase of firearms and thereby reduce the ability of prohibited possessors to obtain these weapons.  These actions would have a positive impact on reducing firearm-related violence in our community.

– Mike Humphrey, Pima County Board of Health