In the context of United States federal gun laws, a straw purchase is defined as any purchase from a dealer holding a Federal Firearms License where the buyer conducting the transaction is acting as a proxy for another person. The law does not distinguish between someone who is purchasing on behalf of a person who legally cannot purchase or possess a firearm, and one who is not.
Beginning in 1975, ATF officials apparently reached a judgment that a dealer who sells to a legitimate purchaser may nonetheless be subject to prosecution or license revocation if he knows that that individual intends to transfer the firearm to a nonresident or other unqualified purchaser. This position was never published in the Federal Register and is indeed contrary to indications which Bureau officials had given Congress, that such sales were not in violation of existing law. Rather than informing dealers of this distinction, ATF agents set out to produce mass arrests upon these "straw purchase" sale charges, sending out undercover agents to entice dealers into transfers of this type.
In the United States, straw purchases are a felony violation of the Gun Control Act of 1968 for both the straw purchaser (who can also be charged with lying on Federal Form 4473) and the ultimate possessor. One of the questions on Form 4473 is “I am the buyer of this firearm” and the purchaser must answer honestly yes or no, by checking the appropriate box in ink. However, purchase of a firearm as a bona fide gift for someone who can legally own such a firearm is permitted.
Many gun shops have jointly participated in programs (such as: “Don’t Lie For The Other Guy”) to deter such purchases.