EVERY year, hundreds of thousands
of people attend gun shows across the United States. Most buyers and sellers are peaceful, law-abiding citizens who enjoy hunting, shooting, or just collecting firearms. But some of the federally licensed dealers and private sellers at these firearms flea markets ignore established safeguards, putting difficult-to-trace guns in the hands of terrorists, gang members, drug sellers, street criminals, and schoolyard shooters.
Now, an investigation prompted by New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg has shown dramatically how gaping loopholes in federal gun laws contribute to illegal firearms sales, including some right here in Ohio.
The New York mayor's office sent 40 investigators to seven gun shows in three states - including four in Ohio - to test the integrity of both private and licensed gun dealers. Private dealers asked to sell weapons to people who admitted not being able to pass a background check. Licensed dealers were asked to sell weapons to one person while knowing the guns were intended for a second person. Nineteen out of 30 private sellers and 16 out of 17 licensed dealers failed the test, knowingly flouting federal law.
The National Rifle Association pooh-poohed the sting as a "publicity stunt," but Mayor Bloomberg has done a valuable service by shining a light on two serious problems associated with gun shows.
The first is lack of enforcement. Federal law already prohibits what are called "straw sales," when one person makes out the paperwork and purchases a weapon the licensed dealer knows is intended for someone else. Private dealers, called "occasional sellers" and exempt from federal regulations requiring buyers to undergo background checks, are prohibited by federal law from selling weapons to anyone they suspect might not be able to pass a background check.
Mayor Bloomberg's investigators had no trouble identifying dealers likely to ignore the law, then purchasing weapons illegally, despite what a spokesman for the Bill Goodman Gun & Knife Show in Dayton called a strong presence by agents of the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives.
The second problem involves the largely unregulated private dealers, many of whom travel to multiple shows, selling hundreds of guns per year from their supposedly private collections. One of these "occasional sellers" sold weapons to undercover buyers at three shows and admitted having sold 348 weapons in less than a year, taking in about $174,000.
Private sellers are not required by law to conduct background checks - which can be completed almost instantaneously in most cases - raising the likelihood that some weapons will end up in the hands of criminals. It's called the "gun show loophole." A 1999 ATF report concluded that 30 percent of guns involved in illegal gun-trafficking investigations were connected somehow to gun shows, and more than a third of those involved sellers who ignored federal regulations.
The NRA would like people to believe that all gun sellers are patriots who follow the law to the letter. That's not true.
Congress should act to close the gun show loophole.