Every year, thousands of guns sold at gun stores end up in communities illegally.
"You don’t really think where do these guns come from. You don’t think that" Rashandra Burnett said
It's a harsh reality that Burnett has lived with for 20 years.
In 2002, she was a college student in Ohio. A classmate asked her to go to a nearby gun store and make a purchase for him.
“Of course, my regular questions were, 'Why do you need to?' His response was more like because he already had one, he couldn’t necessarily get it," Burnett said
What Burnett's classmate didn’t tell her, and she later learned from Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives (ATF) agents was that he, and a gun store owner, were sending illegal weapons to a street gang in New Jersey and he needed her to be a straw buyer.
A straw buyer is a person who buys guns on behalf of someone who can’t— for reasons like having a felony on their record.
“In the moment, it was like, I’m legal, I’m a citizen— not thinking like, they’re probably bad people trying to do bad things,” Burnett said.
Court records show that in two trips to the gun store, Burnett signed paperwork for a total of 40 firearms that her classmate paid cash for on the spot.
She later told federal agents she didn’t know she bought so many because her classmate handled them when they were picked up.
She says she felt uneasy about signing the form that said she was buying the guns for herself.
"Checked it, signed my life away, and handed him the note. And I went and sat in the car," Burnett said.
Burnett may have been a pawn, but to law enforcement, she is not a victim.
She pleaded guilty to two felonies for lying on the gun purchase form.
“It’s frequent, the person doesn’t think what they’re doing is wrong but they’re actually committing a felony," says David Booth, Special Agent in Charge of the Denver Field Division of the ATF.
“It’s probably two or three times that," Booth added.
Federally, buying a gun for someone who can’t, carries a maximum 10-year sentence.
“I would think if people were to get five-to-eight years for this versus probation, I think that would actually help," Booth said.
Activist Chet Whye feels gun laws can punish the wrong people.
"They can’t buy because they’re felons or they have a record and then that forces them to go get people who aren’t in that situation and don’t have a record then you go and lock up the people who are vulnerable," Whye said.
ATF says they don’t keep official stats on the gender of straw purchasers, but the agency notes that, in many cases, women are recruited.
“These women exchange, for love, or a little bit of money will do this favor not knowing what the repercussions are to themselves and their community," Whye said.
Whye, who works with Operation Lipstick, a group that has worked with district attorney offices in cities like Boston and Philadelphia to educate women about straw purchasing so they aren't used in criminal efforts to get more illegal guns onto the streets.
“Just as women, unwittingly or not, are neighbors of the gun pipeline, they can be disruptors. And that's what we should be focused on, empowering women to disrupt this thing," Whye said.
There are other efforts to educate the public about the dangers of straw purchasing, like the National Shooting Sports Foundation's "Don't Lie for The Other Guy" Campaign.
Burnett received probation after pleading guilty to the charges she faced. She’s working toward her master's degree but must live with a felony on her record.
“Hindsight, looking back, you think about all these things like, I don't know how many lives, I have taken, essentially," Burnett said.
She hopes her story will stop others from taking a place along the pipeline of illegal guns in America.