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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.

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