New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg announced the results of a wide-ranging undercover investigation by the city of New York into illegal gun sales. The investigation, which covered seven gun shows in three states, reveals on video how easy it is for criminals to buy firearms at gun shows. Thirty-five of 47 gun sellers sold to people who said either they probably could not pass a background check or to apparent “straw purchasers.”
Investigators went to seven gun shows in Nevada, Ohio and Tennessee to determine whether sellers would engage in two types of illegal transactions. The first involved private sellers selling guns to people who they thought could not pass a federal background check. The second looked at licensed dealers conducting illegal straw sales, which are sales made to accomplices posing as buyers in order to help the real buyer avoid a criminal background check.
“The gun show loophole is a deadly serious problem – and this undercover operation exposes just how pervasive and serious it is,” Bloomberg said. “We are sending a copy of our detailed report Gun Show Undercover to every member of the United States Congress. We’ll work with congressional leaders to pass legislation closing the gun show loophole. This is an issue that has nothing to do with the Second Amendment; it’s about keeping guns from criminals, plain and simple.”
Even though private unlicensed sellers are not required to run background checks it is a federal felony for them to sell guns to people they have reason to believe are prohibited purchasers such as felons or the mentally ill. In purchases attempted on 30 private sellers, the undercover investigator showed interest in buying a gun by asking about stopping power or by dry-firing the weapon. After agreeing on a price, the investigator would indicate that he probably couldn’t pass a background check. At that point, the seller is required by law to refuse the sale – but only 11 out of 30 sellers did so. Investigators found private dealers who failed these integrity tests at every show, including two sellers who failed at multiple shows. In total, 19 of the 30 private sellers approached failed the integrity test.
The 11 sellers who terminated the sale confirmed that private sellers know the law. As one seller in Columbus, Ohio, explained “I mean even as a private citizen, I’m kind of allowed a certain latitude, but once you say that [you can’t pass the background check], I’m kind of obligated not to….I think that’s what the rules are.”
The investigation also revealed that some private sellers are in fact apparently circumventing the federal law that requires dealers to be licensed. For example, one seller sold to investigators at three different gun shows and acknowledged selling 348 assault rifles in less than one year.
Undercover investigators also approached licensed dealers at gun shows and simulated straw purchases. A straw sale, a violation of federal law, occurs when a dealer allows someone who is not the actual buyer of the gun to fill out the paperwork and undergo the background check. Each integrity test of licensed dealers involved two investigators. The first was a male investigator who played the role of a person who wants to purchase a handgun but does not fill out any of the required paperwork. The other investigator, a female, served as the “straw” and appeared to be buying the handgun on behalf of the male.
All but one (16 of 17, or 94%) licensed dealer approached by the investigators failed the integrity test by selling to apparent straw purchasers. Only a dealer at a gun show in Niles, Ohio ended the sale after the straw attempted to fill out the paperwork.
Through the licensed and private seller scenarios, investigators purchased 38 guns in total, 36 semi-automatic handguns and 2 assault rifles.