First of all the only punt I know of is in American football and since I have never played or followed the game I don’t know what it means and why you’d do it.<2012 Rebus reckoned she [[barmaid]] had chosen the soundtrack, whether the punters liked it or not. As she poured his beer . . .”—Standing in Another Man’s Grave by Ian Rankin>
So for stupidos like myself or for those not familiar with American football, I’ll define punt and why you’d do it. In non-football discussions I’ve heard ‘let’s’punt, which struck me (right or wrong) as a way of getting out of a sticky situation. See three quotes at the bottom of the page.
I would also mention that I am going quite beyond what is necessary to explain the punt in my above quote in order to educate myself and others (not in the know) on the larger set of meanings of punt/punter:
PUNT: This is a football term defined as the act of kicking the ball in a similar manner to a drop-kick, except a punt occurs before the ball hits the ground. The punter catches the ball and drops it towards their foot in order to kick it down the field to the other team. A punt will occur as a team has reached fourth down and has decided that instead of attempting to go for a first down, they will give the ball back to the other team by using a punt. This enables the team to push the ball farther down the field, farther away from the end-zone on which their opposition is attempting to score. When a punt play is called in, the opposing team will place a punt returner at the far end of the field where they predict the kick will come down. Once caught, the player may attempt to run the ball and improve their team's field position. This is known as a punt return.
[[The origin of this sporting punt is unknown]]
A reasonable guess, seems to me, is that a ‘punter’ is a name for a sportsman. But that’s wrong. A look in a few dictionaries might be helpful:
CASSELL’S DICTIONARY OF SLANG
1) [early 18th century and still in use] One who bets in a gambling game.
2) [late 19th century] A bet; thus take a punt (gamble, wager) [[OED: a bet, a risk, a gamble]]
1) [18th century and still in use] To gamble, to wager; literally and figuratively. [[OED: Cards. In baccarat, faro, etc.: to lay a stake against the bank.]]
2) [1980s and still in use] To sell, to promote.
3) [2000s] To make an investment in.
Etymology: Unknown; originally Standard English use in certain card-games, to bet against the bank; note also Spanish ponto, a point, faro jargon punt, a point.
1) [early 18th century and still in use] A gambler on cars, dice, horses, dogs, etc. [[OED: Cards. A person who plays against the bank at baccarat, faro, etc.]]
2) [1930s and still in use] The victim of a confidence trickster’s schemes.
3) [1930s and still in use] A generic term for a member of the general public, particularly when in the role of customer, especially of a prostitute, a casino and other slightly ‘shady’ enterprises.
I’ll check one more dictionary to see that we haven’t missed anything important:
CAMBRIDGE DICTIONARIES ONLINE
1) [U.K.] (Gambler): A person who gambles (= risks money guessing the result of something) <Bookmakers are offering punters odds of 6–1 on the horse Red Devil winning the race.>
2) [U.K.] informal (Customer): A customer; a user of services of buyer of goods. < Many hotels are offering discounts in an attempt to attract punters/pull in the punters.>
3) [U.K.] slang: A person who uses the services of a prostitute.
The best fit for punter in my above quote seems to be that of the Cassell’s punter noun 3) where our punters are not only customers in a very sleazy bar but a place where stolen property was bought and sold. There may have also been gambling going on which would fit with his noun 1).
There is one more use of punt, which I have heard fairly often [e.g. "Let's punt' (see above "a way to get out of a sticky situation") and which doesn't seem to fit any of the above. Here are a more few examples:
My best guesses for this one is: punted = avoided the question; improvised; slipped put of a sticky situation.<2010 “As a woman who did it, I can honestly say that I'm not sure. I made the decision standing in line at Boston City Hall, filling out our marriage license application. I didn't realize until that moment that I would have to declare my name intentions on that document, and I felt ambushed. I thought I'd have time to figure it out once we got married. So I punted. My last name became my middle, and I took my husband's last name.” —Boston Globe (Boston Massachusetts), 14 February>
<2012 “Today, when the Democratic National Chairwoman was given an opportunity to honestly apologize for their error and the behavior of the Democratic delegates, she punted, calling their purposeful offense a "technical error.”—States News Service, 6 September>
<2015 “But she [[Hillary]] punted when asked about foreign fund-raising at the Clinton Foundation and whether it posed a conflict of interest.”—CBS This Morning, 20 May>
Ken G – December 2. 2015