Investigators Document Repeat Illegal Sales at Gun Shows

By David S. Fallis
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, October 7, 2009; 6:14 PM

Undercover investigators working on behalf of the New York City mayor's office repeatedly bought guns from unlicensed dealers at gun shows even though they disclosed they probably couldn't pass a background check.

That finding is among those outlined in a 36-page report released Wednesday by Mayor Michael Bloomberg's office that documents alleged illegal gun sales by private and licensed dealers earlier this year at seven gun shows in three states.

The investigation tested private, unlicensed dealers at the shows in Nevada, Ohio and Tennessee to see whether they would sell weapons to someone who said he or she probably could not pass a background check. It also tested licensed dealers at the same shows to see if they would sell to a gun to a person who was buying the weapon for someone else, or what is called a "straw purchase." Combined, 74 percent of the sellers failed the integrity tests, the mayor's office said.

The report, which was released on the Internet along with footage of the transactions, calls for background checks for all gun-show purchases and for the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives to better police the thousands of events held each year.

"This is an issue that has nothing to do with the Second Amendment; it's about keeping guns from criminals, plain and simple," Bloomberg said in a statement issued with the report.

An ATF spokesman said the agency was not familiar with the report and could not comment.

In response to Bloomberg's study, a spokesman for the National Rifle Association questioned the motives for it. "Our position is very simple, and it's something we have been saying for decades: If anyone breaks the law, arrest them and prosecute them," said Andrew Arulanandam, director of public affairs at the NRA. "Sadly what Mr. Bloomberg is more interested in doing is holding press conferences."

The report, titled "Gun Show Undercover: Report on Illegal Sales at Gun Shows," details how private investigators on behalf of the mayor's office found "it is both feasible and easy for criminals to illegally buy guns at gun shows."

Bloomberg's report cites ATF figures from 1999 that found 30 percent of the guns involved in trafficking investigations were linked somehow to gun shows. "By closing the gun show loophole and enhancing enforcement, the federal government can dramatically reduce the criminal activity at gun shows," the report says.

In addition to mandatory background checks, the report requests more funding for the ATF to beef up manpower and for the agency to institute a handful of enforcement strategies at gun shows.

The report is the second undercover initiative by Bloomberg's office in recent years. In 2006, investigators working for Bloomberg conducted simulated "straw purchase" operations at licensed firearms dealers along the East Coast. The city sued 27 licensed dealers in five states, arguing that dealers' sales practices were negligent and contributed to gun-related crime in New York City. The undercover tactics were controversial, but most of the dealers entered into settlements and are under court oversight.

In the latest undercover operation, which an official said cost the city about $1.5 million, investigators for the mayor's office targeted shows that require no background checks for private gun transactions. Nationally, the report notes that nine states and the District require "checks on at least all handguns sold at gun shows" and seven other states require buyers to obtain permits that involve a background check for handguns.

In most states, private individuals selling firearms at gun shows do not face the same regulations as a licensed firearms dealer -- the private sellers are exempt from background check requirements and do not have to keep records of the transactions. By law, however, they cannot sell to a person who they have reason to believe is prohibited from buying a weapon.

The shows were chosen, the report said, based on reports from former law enforcement officers, federal gun-trafficking prosecutions and the shows' proximity to cities experiencing gang violence. The shows took place from May through August of this year, in cities including Reno, Nev., and Nashville, Tenn., the report said.

The operation was conducted by 40 licensed private investigators who videotaped and recorded the transactions. Investigators, employing different scenarios, attempted firearms purchases.

Overall, 19 of the 30 private sellers failed the integrity test, and 16 out of 17 licensed dealers "willingly sold to an apparent straw purchaser."

"In nearly every transaction, the gun was handed back to the man, even though the woman had filled out the paperwork," the report said of the straw purchases from licensed dealers.

Investigators purchased a total of 36 semiautomatic handguns and two assault rifles under the two strategies.

The report is the second in recent weeks to explore firearms dealing at gun shows.

Last month, a 300-page report called "Inside Gun Shows: What Goes On When Everybody Thinks Nobody's Watching" was published by the University of California at Davis Violence Prevention Research Program. Researchers visited 78 gun shows in 19 states between 2005 and 2008, documenting with photographs and video what they said were straw purchases and undocumented private-party sales.

"Illegal transactions were often conducted entirely out in the open," said Garen Wintemute, who authored the report. "The sense of impunity among sellers and purchasers was remarkable."

Bloomberg's gun-show report comes in the wake of a separate study by Mayors Against Illegal Guns, a bipartisan coalition of mayors co-chaired by Bloomberg. That study, which is being circulated to members of Obama's administration, outlines 40 proposed changes to curb gun trafficking, including strategies for gun shows.

There are two federal bills pending that would require background checks at all gun shows, the report notes.

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