Reporting from New York — New York Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg wanted to illustrate that buying a gun like the one used in the recent Arizona shootings is as easy as buying "a hamburger and fries at a McDonald's." So he sent out undercover investigators to help him prove it.
But not in his own city. This time, the mayor sent New York investigators to Arizona.
So what do gun sales in Arizona have to do with life in New York?
Bloomberg has long campaigned for tougher federal gun regulation — after all, he argues, most illegal firearms that cause carnage on the streets of New York are bought on the streets elsewhere, usually in Pennsylvania and Virginia.
Now, Bloomberg, who formed a task force of mayors against illegal guns, has seized the moment when the nation is mourning the victims in Tucson to make a point.
At a City Hall news conference Monday, Bloomberg showed videos of what the New York sleuths turned up at an Arizona gun show.
In a performance straight out of Hollywood, an investigator is seen handling a semiautomatic pistol that he is thinking about buying from a dealer at a Jan. 23 Crossroads of the West gun show in Phoenix. Sounding sinister, he says, "I like the concealability, it's the best part," and admits he couldn't pass the background check required to buy a gun from a licensed dealer — but not from a private dealer like the one at the gun show. He then hands over a wad of cash and walks away with the pistol.
"That sale was blatantly illegal," said Bloomberg, explaining that private sellers are not supposed to forgo checks if they have a reason to believe buyers are felons, mentally ill or couldn't pass federal scrutiny. "But it happens all the time."
Robert Templeton, president of Crossroads of the West, issued a statement Monday insisting that federal and state law enforcement agents regularly inspected the gun show to ensure all transactions were legal.
He also said Bloomberg should stay out of Arizona's business.
"Mayor Bloomberg and his 'task force' have no legal authority in the state of Arizona, or in any other place in America except New York City," Templeton said. "These forays into America's heartland committing blatant acts to entrap otherwise innocent gun owners is an unlawful scheme."
But Bloomberg made it clear there were no borders in his campaign to plug "dangerous gaps" in federal gun laws.
The exemption in the law for private sales is intended to allow owners to get rid of the occasional gun from their personal collections. But critics like Bloomberg say it makes it easy for criminals to get what they want from gun shows.
In another video, an undercover investigator is seen buying a Glock pistol and a 33-round, high-capacity magazine similar to the one used in the Tucson rampage that killed six people and injured 13 others, including Rep. Gabrielle Giffords. That sale was legal, Bloomberg said, but "it really shouldn't be."
"Just think about this for a second," he said. "No matter what you've done in the past — you have a criminal record, a history of drug abuse or even if your name appears on a terrorist watch list — you can still walk into a gun show and buy a 9-millimeter in the time it would take to buy a hamburger and fries at a McDonald's. Because of the lack of background checks, gun shows have really become magnets for criminals."
New York City paid $100,000 to send eight private investigators to the Phoenix show. In 2009, the city sent investigators to gun shows in Nevada, Ohio and Tennessee; in connection with that sting, federal agents seized almost 800 illegal guns at the home of a regular seller at a Reno gun show.
"Since the 2009 investigation, four of the seven gun shows documented on video have changed their practices," Bloomberg said.
He told reporters he would press for reform in Washington and said he ran into a White House official Saturday night who told him that President Obama "would be addressing the issue in a separate speech."
Asked about the mayor's latest investigation, Robert Gibbs, the president's press secretary, made no indication that a speech was coming but said, "We believe that there are reasons that federal laws are on the books, and the need to strongly adhere to and follow existing law is important not just in the purchase of weapons but throughout our civil life."