Buying a gun for a person who can't legally possess a firearm would be a federal felony under legislation now headed toward the Senate; Arizona senators John McCain and Jeff Flake should support this bill.

Arizona's state laws allow straw purchases to be prosecuted as a misdemeanor, and strengthening the federal laws will help fill in that gap.

The legislation passed out of the Senate Judiciary Committee last week on an 11-7 vote, with one Republican voting in support. This is a simple, logical measure that deserves widespread support.

A "straw purchase" happens when a person who can pass a gun-purchase background check fills out the necessary paperwork to legally acquire a firearm on behalf of a "prohibited purchaser." A person can be barred from owning a firearm because of a criminal record, having been involuntarily committed for mental illness, or drug use.

The bill would define the straw purchase itself as a federal crime for buyer and seller. Now prosecutors can charge a person buying a gun on behalf of someone else with making false statements - stating that you are the intended owner when the true owner is someone else - on federal firearm sales forms. This carries a penalty of up to 10 years in prison or as much as $250,000 in fines.

The legislation is needed, however, because it would make the actual transaction - and the participants' actions - a federal crime. The possible sentence would be upped to 15 years in prison, or up to 25 years if the straw buyer had cause to believe the weapon would be used in a violent crime.

McCain and Flake have a particular interest in halting straw purchases because Arizona, as a border state, is directly affected by the practice of Mexican drug cartels paying people who can pass the background check to buy weapons for them. A public awareness campaign in 2009 sought to raise the profile of straw purchases, with billboards and info cards warning would-be buyers of the penalties.

Stiffening the federal straw purchasing and gun-trafficking laws makes sense. The change would move straw purchases from essentially a paperwork violation - lying on a form - to a federal felony that's more likely to be prosecuted and carries a heavy penalty.

Compare that to Arizona law, which treats a straw purchase as a Class 6 felony, a classification so low it can be charged as a misdemeanor.

"Right now it is against the law in Arizona to knowingly sell or transfer a firearm to someone who is a prohibited possessor," said Pima County Attorney Barbara LaWall. Proving that a seller knew that the buyer cannot legally own a gun can be difficult, she said.

If convicted under that state law, the defendant would be eligible for probation, or could face a sentence of six months to 1.5 years.

Arizona is a bit tougher on giving or lending a firearm to a person if you "know or have reason to know" that the recipient is going to use it in any felony. LaWall said this charge comes up often in road rage and many gang-related crimes. Conviction carries a sentence of 2.5 to seven years.

Neither Arizona charge matches the seriousness of the crime, however. Providing a deadly weapon to someone who is a convicted felon, has been found mentally ill enough to be a danger to self or others, or who uses drugs defies rationalization.

McCain and Flake should support the straw purchase legislation. Other measures, such as requiring a background check in every gun purchase, are needed as well, but this is an important step.

One need not agree with other gun-related legislation, such as those background checks or renewing the assault weapons ban - moves we do support - to see that it makes sense to make it a crime to help get lethal weapons into the hands of people that we, as a nation, have decided should not have them.

Arizona Daily Star