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Targeting gun shows

A N.Y. probe exposes the loopholes that let criminals get firearms -- and the need for greater regulation.

October 16, 2009

For shock value, they may not rank with the videos released last month showing ACORN workers giving tax advice to a couple of undercover investigators posing as a prostitute and her pimp. But New York Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg's covert recordings of what really goes on at gun shows are appalling nonetheless.

In the midst of a reelection campaign in a Democratic-majority city, the Republican (sort of) Bloomberg has latched on to an issue that appeals mainly to liberals: gun control. Though New York state has fairly restrictive gun laws, Bloomberg believes firearms bought out of state play a big role in Gotham's crime problems. So he sent private investigators to seven gun shows in three states between May and August and posted the results, including video shot with hidden cameras, on a city-sponsored website.

"So no background check, right?" the investigators ask. "Because I probably couldn't pass one." The response, over and over, is laughter, a shrug or even admissions from gun sellers that they couldn't pass one either. Out of 30 vendors approached, 19 sold guns to people they knew were barred from owning them. Also captured on tape were dealers selling weapons to an obvious straw buyer -- someone who buys a gun for someone else, usually because the actual buyer couldn't pass the federal background check. Sixteen of 17 vendors approached sold guns to straw buyers, which is a felony.

Gun shows are thought to be a key supplier of guns used in crimes, though how big a role they play is the subject of heated debate. To understand why they're considered a problem, one first has to understand the contorted nature of federal gun laws.

New-gun retailers are closely regulated, with laws forcing them to obtain licenses, keep transaction records so that guns used in crimes can be traced, and perform background checks on buyers to ensure they aren't legally barred from owning guns. Convicted felons, drug addicts, the mentally ill and illegal immigrants are among those who fall into that category. Meanwhile, nonprofessional used-gun traders are subject to none of those requirements, although even resellers are forbidden from transactions in which they know the buyer couldn't pass a background check (something Bloomberg's investigators caught on tape repeatedly).

The absence of regulation of second-hand sales is often referred to as the "gun-show loophole." Any criminal can go to a gun show in most states and buy an armful of used firearms, including semiautomatic assault weapons, knowing they're untraceable and that no one will check his conviction record. Bloomberg and other activists seek to close this loophole, and they have powerful friends. During the presidential campaign, Barack Obama agreed, as did his Republican opponent, John McCain. Yet bills that have sought to close the loophole have never gone far, and there's little reason to think that current efforts, including a bill from Sen. Frank R. Lautenberg (D-N.J.), will be more successful. That's because the gun lobby enjoys political power that greatly exceeds the number of hard-core gun enthusiasts in the United States, and because many Democrats believe they lost their congressional majority in the mid-1990s because of their aggressive pursuit of gun-control laws -- and they're terrified of a repeat.

Democrats' cowardice is distressing, particularly when it's exhibited by Obama, who has been silent on the issue since the campaign and has made no attempt to back Lautenberg's bill. But even if it were to pass, it wouldn't go far enough. In truth, the phrase "gun-show loophole" is a misnomer, because unregulated secondary sales don't just happen at gun shows. Used guns are sold at swap meets, through classified ads and even over the Internet. What's more, criminals get their guns from many sources besides gun shows, including straw buyers and licensed dealers who break the law.

What's really needed is a federal law patterned on California's tough restrictions on firearm sales. Lautenberg's bill, S. 843, regulates gun-show transactions exclusively. In California, it is illegal for anyone to sell or transfer a firearm, whether at a gun show or not, without processing the transaction through a licensed dealer, who must perform a background check. Opponents claim that this would be overly burdensome, but it has had no discernible effects on gun sales in California, which, according to a recent UC Davis study, hosted 100 gun shows in 2007 and like many other states saw a 30% year-over-year sales increase in late 2008 and early 2009. Though there's little evidence that this law has reduced gun violence in the Golden State, that's probably because it's still so easy for criminals to get guns from elsewhere, especially from anything-goes border states such as Nevada and Arizona. A federal law would change that.

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