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October 19, 2009

What's Going On (at Gun Shows): Caught on Video

Last month, Bullet Counter Points reported on a new study by Dr. Garen Wintemute of UC Davis that uncovered widespread illegal activity at gun shows in 19 states. This month sees the release of an equally revealing—and disturbing—study about these largely unregulated events.

On October 7, the City of New York released “Gun Show Undercover: Report on Illegal Sales at Gun Shows.” The report details undercover investigations that took place at gun shows in three states–Tennessee, Nevada, and Ohio—between May and August of this year. Private investigators were hired by the Office of NYC Mayor Michael Bloomberg to perform sting operations on federally licensed firearm dealers and unlicensed private sellers at 14 different shows in that time-frame.

The investigations expose the dangers of the “Gun Show Loophole,” which allows individuals who are “not engaged in the business of dealing firearms” to sell guns to others without conducting background checks or maintaining records of sale. Private investigators posing as purchasers approached 33 unlicensed sellers and told them that they “probably couldn’t pass a background check.” 22 (or 67%) of the private sellers responded with quips like “I don’t care” or “I couldn’t pass one either, bud” and sold a gun to them anyway. In these transactions, 20 semiautomatic handguns and two semiautomatic SKS assault rifles were sold illegally to investigators (it is against the law for private sellers to transfer a firearm if they have reason to believe the purchaser is prohibited under federal law from buying guns)

It also became apparent that many of these unregulated private sellers—despite not having a federal license—were indeed “engaged in the business” of dealing firearms, and therefore breaking the law. One seller in Sharonville, Ohio, told investigators that he had sold 348 assault rifles in “just under a year” for $174,000 in revenue.” Another seller had “over 100 guns on display in twelve professionally designed cases.” Others acknowledged that they sold firearms at gun shows on a regular basis.

Not that the record of licensed dealers was much better during the investigations... 17 licensed dealers at the shows were approached by investigators who simulated a “straw purchase.” In a straw purchase, a prohibited purchaser recruits an individual with a clean criminal record to fill out paperwork, pass the background check, and purchase firearms for him/her. Only one licensed dealer refused to sell investigators a gun in this manner, despite the fact that it constitutes a federal felony offense. In these sales, 16 semiautomatic handguns were sold illegally.

Undercover videos of several of these illegal sales can be viewed here.

The guns purchased in the NYC investigation were turned over to law enforcement authorities and did no harm in nearby communities. Two homicides that were recently reported in the media show the real-life damage that can be done by guns that are trafficked from gun shows, however.

A revolver sold by a private seller at a Reno gun show was recently found at the scene of a murder in Oakland. The seller informed authorities that the woman who purchased the gun suggested to him that she would not be able to pass a background check.

In Dayton, Ohio, a police officer who lost his wife tragically to gun violence in 2000 recalled that the murder weapon came from Bill Goodman’s Gun and Knife Show—one of the shows investigated by NYC authorities. “I’m a firm proponent of the Second Amendment,” said Officer John Beall, “but it is true that the subject who killed my wife walked into Bill Goodman’s gun show, no questions asked, while under indictment [and purchased the gun].”

As Mayor Bloomberg recently said, “This is an issue that has nothing to do with the Second Amendment; it’s about keeping guns from criminals, plain and simple.” That much is obvious—and we hope that President Obama and the ATF will pay heed to a paper recently sent to them by Mayors Against Illegal Guns (of which Mayor Bloomberg is a co-chair) entitled “Blueprint for Federal Action on Illegal Guns.” This document contains many important recommendations on how to better regulate gun shows—none of which require action from a U.S. Congress that lives in fear of the gun lobby.

October 12, 2009

"We cannot allow gun violence to take any more children's lives..."

The Children’s Defense Fund (CDF), a member of the Coalition to Stop Gun Violence, has worked tirelessly during their 35 years of existence to better the lives of children. The driving force behind these efforts has been CDF President Marian Wright Edelman. Edelman was a longtime activist in the civil rights movement and later moved to the District of Columbia to found CDF.

Recently, CDF released its 2009 “Protect Children, Not Guns” report, which evaluates the impact of gun violence on America’s youth. According to the most recent data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), 3,184 children died from gunfire in the United States in 2006, a 6% increase from 2005. More preschoolers (63) were killed by firearms that year than law enforcement officers (48) in the line of duty. Since 1979, gun violence has ended the lives of 107,603 children and teens in the U.S. The data also reveals that black males ages 15 to 19 are almost five times as likely as their white peers and more than twice as likely as their Latino peers to be killed by firearms. Edelman firmly believes that “the United States does not provide a level playing field for all children, and our nation does not value and protect all children’s lives equally.”

Why does CDF continue to prioritize the issue of gun violence? Edelman says that “it is now more important than ever that we work to protect children from firearms in their homes, schools and communities.” In her mind, “we do not have a ‘child and youth problem,’” but a “profound adult problem.”

“It is up to every one of us,” Edelman states, “to let our elected officials know that we care deeply about controlling gun violence.” She feels that “stronger federal legislation could help protect more children” and outlines some key measures she would like legislators to act on.

First, she believes the “Gun Show Loophole” should be closed. While the Brady Law requires that federally licensed firearms dealers conduct background checks on every sale, the law allows private individuals to sell firearms without a license and avoid the required background checks, and these sellers frequent gun shows. One study estimated that 40% of all firearms in the U.S. are purchased without a background check. Edelman suggests that advocates push for passage of bipartisan bills to require background checks on all sales at gun shows, S.843 and H.R. 2324.

Edelman also believes that the National Instant Criminal Background Check System (NICS) should be strengthened. “The system could be strengthened by requiring states to provide more information to the FBI’s national database on prohibited persons, extending background checks to cover all purchases of firearms, and closing the [Terrorist Watch List] Loophole,” she says.

Finally, Edelman emphasizes the need to reinstitute the Assault Weapons Ban. While the ban, signed into law in 1994, banned 19 types of semiautomatic military-style firearms and high-capacity ammunition magazines, it expired in 2004.

Legislation is not enough by itself, however. Edelman believes “America has a deadly, historic romance with guns and violence. Our culture frequently glamorizes guns and violence in movies, television, music, and on the internet.” This culture of violence is “desensitizing” us “to the value of life,” according to Edelman, and “individuals and communities must act to end [it].”

Edelman envisions hard work on the road to a safer, more peaceful society: “Like the black students and other civil rights activists during the 1960s, we cannot wait placidly for change. They took control of their own destinies and fought inequality and discrimination—and we must do the same. We cannot allow gun violence to take any more children’s lives because of our complacency. We must take action now to let Congress know it must enact sensible gun legislation to stop the senseless killing of children and teens.”

October 5, 2009

Call Heeded

A remarkable victory was achieved by grassroots activists in Philadelphia last month when one of the most corrupt gun dealers in America was forced to permanently shutter his business. The activists’ campaign, known as “Heeding God’s Call,” relied on one very powerful “weapon”: faith.

The Heeding God’s Call campaign unites 39 churches, synagogues and mosques in the Philadelphia area that are frustrated with the high level of gun violence in the city and the refusal of Pennsylvania legislators to address the problem. "[We need] a reduction of violence, a reduction of homicides that are affecting Philadelphia," said Allen Bartlett, assisting bishop for the Episcopal Diocese of Philadelphia in 2008. "It's getting worse. Guns have to be acquired somewhere and so we're going to the source."

It turns out the primary source of Philadelphia’s crime guns was Colosimo’s, a prominent gun store in Philadelphia. 2003 data from the Bureau of Alcohol, Firearms, Tobacco and Explosives (ATF) data showed that from 1989 to 1996, Colosimo’s sold 425 guns traced to crime (10 homicides, 85 assaults, 30 robberies and 300 additional gun crimes). Colosimo’s ranked fifth among federally licensed dealers in the U.S. in terms of having the highest number of guns traced to crime. Additionally, ATF data showed that 20% of all the guns recovered at crime scenes in Philadelphia were originally purchased at Colosimo’s.

Naturally, I have more traces,” said James Colosimo, the store’s owner. “I’m the oldest gun dealer in Pennsylvania. I’ve sold more guns.” Bryan Miller of Ceasefire New Jersey saw it differently. “All of the bad guys in Philadelphia and Camden know they can straw-purchase guns at Colosimo’s,” he said. “Colosimo’s values profits over the lives of others,” added Philadelphia Solicitor Shelley Smith.

The members of Heeding God’s Calls met with Colosimo in December 2008 and asked him to sign a Responsible Firearms Retailer Partnership 10-Point Voluntary Code to reduce the amount of straw purchases and “irresponsible” gun sales taking place at his store. The code was based on one that had been adopted by Wal-Mart at the request of Mayors Against Illegal Guns in April of that year.

After Colosimo refused to sign the document, members of Heeding God’s Call began a series of protests. Twice a week for nine months, they gathered in front of the gun shop to demonstrate and pray. On January 12, members of Heeding God’s Call were arrested after entering Colosimo’s and charged with trespassing and disorderly conduct. At their trial in May, their attorney argued that their behavior “was justified because they were trying to prevent a greater evil”—deadly shootings in Philadelphia. Defendant Kemah Washington, from the Church of the Advocate in Philadelphia, told the judge, “Being arrested in January was never my intention. I did not go to be a nuisance nor did go to engage in any tumultuous behavior, but I hear the cries from our children and knew I had to react to their cries, I knew I had to stand up and be a voice for those who have been killed or maimed by gun violence.” The 12 defendants were acquitted of all charges.

Probably not coincidentally, the store began to draw intense scrutiny from federal agents during the demonstrations and trial. On September 22, U.S. Attorney Michael Levy charged Colosimo’s with making false statements and failing to properly maintain firearm transaction records. The ATF found that Colosimo’s had sold at least 10 guns to three people in straw purchases between 2004 and 2007, including through “controlled buys” that had been set up by the agency. On September 28, James Colosimo pled guilty. His federal license to sell firearms has been revoked and as of October 1 a small sign appeared on the front door of his shop that said “Closed for inventory.”

After hearing that news, Cherie Ryans—a Philadelphia mother who spent Saturdays outside Colosimo’s in memory of a son she had lost to an illegal gun—said, “I will never find the person who took my son’s life, but another life will be spared because this shop has closed.”

The Philadelphia Inquirer opined: “Activism of the Heeding God's Call variety—as well as the increasingly vocal Mayors Against Illegal Guns campaign in Pennsylvania –is the best hope for pushing back against National Rifle Association opposition to commonsense trafficking safeguards.” We agree, and hope the efforts of these courageous activists will serve as a model—and a source of inspiration—for other Americans trying to save lives in their communities.