NYC undercover stings expose 'gun show loophole'

Published: Oct. 7, 2009 at 4:53 PM EDT|Updated: Oct. 8, 2009 at 11:48 AM EDT
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NEW YORK (AP) - Private unlicensed gun dealers were captured on video selling weapons to undercover investigators who admitted they couldn't pass background checks in a sting operation by Mayor Michael Bloomberg to highlight the "gun show loophole."

The stings, described in a city report and documented on video released at City Hall on Wednesday, were conducted at seven gun shows in Tennessee, Ohio and Nevada. One was conducted in Sharonville, Ohio.

Those states are among the many that permit private unlicensed dealers, known as "occasional sellers," to sell weapons at gun shows without conducting background checks.

Gun-control advocates say the loophole makes it easier for criminals to acquire guns and prevents law enforcement from being able to trace those weapons if they are used in crimes. Nine states, including New York, have passed laws to close the loophole, requiring background checks on at least all handgun purchases at gun shows.

Bloomberg has long campaigned for Congress to close it, and for states to do it on their own if the federal government does not. Even in states that haven't closed the loophole, federal law bars "occasional sellers" from selling guns to people they have reason to believe would fail background checks.

This is where the Bloomberg operation says 19 out of 30 sellers broke the law during the investigation, in which undercover investigators posing as buyers wore tiny cameras concealed in baseball hats and purses and audio recorders hidden in wristwatches. In each purchase, the investigator showed interest in buying a gun, agreed on a price and then indicated that he probably could not pass a background check.

Most sellers allowed the purchases anyway, responding in some cases by saying, "I couldn't pass one either," or "I don't care," according to the videos.

Two assault rifles and 20 semiautomatic handguns were bought this way, the report said.

"What you just saw was willful disregard of the law, and it happened again and again and again," Bloomberg said, after showing several videos of those sales. The 11 dealers who refused sales showed they knew the law.

"Once you say that, I'm kind of obligated not to," said one seller on video. "I think that's what the rules are."

"Fact is, you done told me too much," said another who refused. "I wouldn't sell one to you at all."

The Bloomberg administration went ahead with the investigation despite a Department of Justice warning in 2007 that came after the city conducted a similar sting in 2006 to catch straw purchases, which is when someone fills out the paperwork and buys a firearm for another person. The department warned in a letter to City Hall that such civilian operations risk "legal liabilities" and can "unintentionally interrupt or jeopardize ongoing criminal investigations."

The city has no legal authority over the dealers and is using its findings to make a point about the unregulated sales of so-called "occasional dealers." A copy of the report is being sent to every member of Congress and the findings will be shared the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives.

ATF spokesman Drew Wade said the agency was reviewing the report and declined to comment on its conclusions or whether the city had acted appropriately. The National Rifle Association said Wednesday that Bloomberg's sting was nothing more than a publicity stunt.

"If he was serious about curbing crime he would have cooperated with local law enforcement authorities instead of grandstanding at a press conference," NRA spokesman Andrew Arulanandam said. The undercover operation took place from about May to August and its $1.5 million cost was paid by city taxpayers. The city hired a team of 40 private investigators from an outside firm to make the purchases.

One of the shows - the Bill Goodman Gun & Knife Show - was held the Hara Conference & Exhibition Center in Dayton, Ohio. Hara spokeswoman Karen Wampler said the ATF had a strong presence at the show and that the show's promoter has assured arena officials that any violators would be removed. A message left with promoter Dave Goodman wasn't immediately returned.

The sting comes three years after Bloomberg's administration conducted a similar operation focusing on illegal straw purchases at gun shops in Georgia, Ohio, Pennsylvania, South Carolina and Virginia that authorities believe were responsible for selling guns used in crimes in New York City.

Bloomberg's administration brought a civil case against 27 gun dealers targeted in its 2006 investigation. As a result of the suit, 20 dealers are being monitored by a court-appointed special master. One is out of business, two more are expected to be put under monitoring agreements and three were dropped from the suit.

A final dealer settled with the city but the terms did not include a monitor. Investigators in this year's sting also attempted straw purchases at gun shows, and were successful 16 out of 17 times. The mayor said no civil action is planned but that officials are evaluating their options.

(Copyright 2009 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)