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July 26, 2010

"Like Buying a Candy Bar"

On July 14, U.S. Rep. “Bobby” Scott (D-VA)—the Chair of the Subcommittee on Crime, Terrorism, and Homeland Security—co-hosted a Congressional Forum with Reps. Mike Castle (R-DE), Carolyn McCarthy (D-NY) and Mike Quigley (D-IL). The forum was designed to explore the merits of H.R. 2324, the “Gun Show Loophole Closing Act of 2009.”

The “Gun Show Loophole” is a serious gap in our nation’s gun laws which allows individuals to buy firearms without undergoing a background check. Federal law mandates that all federally licensed firearms dealers (FFL’s) administer background checks to purchasers. In 37 states, however, the Gun Show Loophole allows “private sellers” who are “not engaged in the business of dealing” firearms to sell guns without processing background checks or keeping records of sale.

The forum began with a series of undercover videos that illustrate how easily the Gun Show Loophole can be exploited. One video from the City of New York showed investigators buying firearms from private sellers at seven gun shows in three states. The city’s investigators conducted “integrity tests” where they told the sellers outright that they “probably couldn’t pass a background check.” Nonetheless, 19 out of 30 private sellers sold them guns anyway in violation of federal law. One private seller from Ohio was caught on tape bragging that he had sold 348 assault weapons in the previous year (no federal agency monitors private individuals’ income to determine if their principal source of livelihood is firearm sales). He then told the investigator not to worry about not being able to pass a background check, stating, “I don’t care ... I wouldn’t pass one either, bud.

Those present then heard testimony from two panels of law enforcement officials, municipal officials, and gun violence survivors. Some of the most informative testimony came from Gerald Nunziato, a retired Special Agent with the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF). Nunziato worked for the ATF from 1970 to 1999 in Michigan, Ohio, Florida, Maryland and Washington, D.C. Nunziato’s extensive experience with illegal firearms trafficking investigations showed him that “gun shows are a major outlet for burglars to sell stolen firearms and a place for criminals to shop for the types of firearms they desire.” Nunziato observed that criminals frequently “sought out the known firearms traffickers who would go to gun shows to obtain the type of weapon they needed.” “Buyers at gun shows have a huge selection of firearms and the sellers of stolen firearms and those with criminal intentions have little fear of being detected,” he stated. Perhaps most disturbingly, Nunziato noted that during his time as head of the ATF’s National Tracing Center, 45% of guns used in crime nationally were untraceable, in large part due to unregulated private sales, which leave no paper trail for law enforcement to follow.

Colonel (Retired) W. Gerald Massengill, a former Superintendent of the Virginia State Police, also provided compelling testimony. Following the 2007 mass shooting at Virginia Tech, Massengill chaired the Virginia Tech Review Panel, which recommended requiring background checks for all private sales, including those at gun shows. A firm believer in Second Amendment rights, Massengill stated the problem very simply: “A gun can be legally bought from a private sale at a gun show in Virginia today with no questions as to your identity or background—much like buying a candy bar in a candy store. It seems to me that common sense tells us that such sales are not in the interest of public safety ... We, as a society, need to do all that’s reasonable and prudent to ensure that firearms cannot go, unabated, to felons and the adjudicated mentally ill.” The Virginia Statehouse News has posted two videos of Massengill discussing the Gun Show Loophole outside the forum here.

Virginia Tech survivor Colin Goddard was the final—and perhaps most powerful—speaker at the forum. Goddard was shot four times in 10 minutes at Virginia Tech on April 16, 2007; 10 minutes that, he said, changed his life forever. Although Virginia Tech shooter Seung-Hui Cho acquired his handguns legally through FFLs, Goddard noted that “he could have easily attended any of the dozens of gun shows that take place throughout Virginia each weekend and bought the same weapons from a ‘private seller’ with no background check into his mental history, and no questions asked.” Goddard knows this first-hand, as last summer he travelled to gun shows in Texas, Ohio, Maine, Minnesota, and Virginia and recorded undercover videos of private firearm sales. He and a friend were able to buy semiautomatic handguns and assault weapons without showing any ID or undergoing any background checks. Goddard even purchased the same handgun that was used to shoot him—cash and carry. No transaction took more than five minutes to complete. “Why should sellers at one table be required to run background checks, when the sellers, literally two tables down—with the exact same weapons—are allowed to sell their guns to anyone who just has the cash in hand?” Goddard asked those in attendance. “It’s no mystery why the guns sold by so-called ‘private sellers’ are often more expensive than the exact same model sold by licensed gun dealers. Purchasers who know they can’t pass a background check are willing to pay a premium. One seller told me straight up, and I quote, ‘No paperwork, no tax, that’s gotta’ be worth something.’” As Goddard noted, “For gun traffickers, domestic abusers and felons who can’t pass a background check, that’s worth plenty.” Rep. Castle described Goddard’s testimony as the “most compelling” he has heard during his time in Congress.

The National Rifle Association continues to oppose closing the Gun Show Loophole and claims that gun shows are frequented not by criminals, but by millions of “law-abiding citizens, collectors, hobbyists, hunters, target shooters, law enforcement officers and memorabilia shoppers.” Why then, Gerald Nunziato asked, is the carrying of loaded firearms strictly prohibited inside gun shows? The lawless and dangerous atmosphere inside these events was highlighted this month when the Wyoming Department of Revenue suspended sales tax collections at gun shows because of violent threats that were being received by the state’s field tax agents. Dan Noble, director of the department’s excise tax division, said that “every one” of his state agents has experienced “animosity” from gun show attendees, and “because there are guns there...I don’t want to put my people at risk.”

H.R. 2324, the “Gun Show Loophole Closing Act,” currently has 109 co-sponsors in the House of Representatives. Its Senate counterpart, S. 843, the “Gun Show Background Check Act,” has 17 co-sponsors. You can help by calling your Members of Congress today at (202) 224-3121. Ask them to co-sponsor H.R. 2324/S. 843 and encourage their colleagues to do the same!

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