The man in the baseball-type cap was clear about his task. He was selling weapons at a gun show in Sharonville, Ohio. And he wasn’t troubled about the minutiae of the law.
“I don’t need your address,” he said, shaking his head and waving a dismissive hand across his face. “Nothing.”
“No background check?” asks a skeptical potential buyer.
“Just show me that you’re from Ohio,” the seller said.
The buyer sounded relieved. “That’s good about the background check,” he said, “because I probably couldn’t pass one.”
“I don’t care,” the seller said. Then, with a chuckle and a toothy smile, he added, “because I wouldn’t pass either, bud.”
Undercover investigators for the New York City mayor’s office secretly filmed this transaction earlier this year as part of a seven-city and three-state study on how easy it is for people who can’t pass a background check to get a gun. Just attend one of the thousands of local guns shows held every weekend across America. Odds are that if the money is green, the dealer will sell a gun. In most cases, no questions are asked.
In fact, that’s precisely what New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s office discovered as men and women posing as gun buyers purchased a total of 36 semiautomatic handguns and two assault rifles at seven gun shows in three states—Nevada, Tennessee, and Ohio. The transactions were secretly videotaped and posted on the Internet along with the release of the 36-page report.
Investigators found that 19 of the 30 private sellers failed an “integrity test,” by willingly selling a gun to someone who admitted to being unable to pass a background check. Separately, 16 of 17 licensed dealers had no qualms about selling a gun to someone who made it apparent that he or she was buying the gun for a person that couldn’t pass the mandated background check.
Both of these activities are illegal under existing law. They also represent the so-called “gun show loophole,” which criminals use to obtain guns. Federal laws forbid felons from purchasing guns and require licensed dealers to do a background check before selling to anyone. Private sellers at gun shows aren’t required to conduct background checks, but sellers are obligated by law to terminate a potential sale if the buyer says something to suggest that he or she couldn’t buy a gun through legal channels.
Sometimes this happens. But mostly it doesn’t because there’s such lax enforcement of the law at gun shows. According to figures from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives, 30 percent of illegally trafficked guns can be traced to gun show sales.
That figure grabbed Bloomberg’s attention because the mayor suspects many of the guns traded at such show figure into criminal activity in New York City.
What’s more, political leaders across the ideological spectrum all support strict enforcement of existing gun laws.
Bloomberg has joined with some 450 other U.S. mayors to form “Mayors Against Illegal Guns,” a coalition of Democrats, Republicans, and Independents representing 56 million Americans to push the White House toward taking a stronger stand against the spread of illegal guns.
In his crusade to hold down crime in his city and across the nation, Bloomberg wisely and carefully avoids calling for new laws—only for stronger federal support to detect and prosecute those who sell illegal weapons.
John Feinblatt, criminal justice coordinator in the mayor’s office, told me recently that it’s also a wise approach for gun-shy politicians. “We are trying not to talk about guns, but to talk about safety,” he said. “Guns aren’t a winning political subject, but safety is.”
President Barack Obama could help shift the argument from the loser of gun control to the winner of safer cities with little more than a stroke of a pen or the raising of his voice.
He could direct the Justice Department to take an aggressive stand against the spread of illegal guns. No threat to the Second Amendment. No act of Congress needed. All that’s required is a beefed-up commitment to enforcing the laws already on the books.
An easy first step would be cracking down on the gun show loophole.
Sam Fulwood III is a Senior Fellow at American Progress.