New York Probe Finds 62 Percent of Private Gun Sellers Sell to Prohibited Individuals

PHOTO: A man chooses a gun at a gun shop in Glendale, California.
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More than six in 10 private gun sellers agreed to sell a firearm to a buyer who said he probably couldn't pass a background check, according to a report released today by New York City officials as part of an undercover investigation.

"Our investigation indicates illegal online sales are a problem that's national in scope," said Mayor Michael Bloomberg at a press conference today.

Federal law prohibits felons, domestic abusers, drug addicts and the mentally ill from buying firearms, and federally-licensed firearms dealers are required to conduct background checks and keep paperwork on their buyers. But unlicensed private sellers -- who account for about 40 percent of U.S. gun sales -- do not have to conduct background checks on their buyers. They are prohibited, however, from selling firearms to someone they know to be a prohibited purchaser.

These private sellers have found a safe place to conduct their business in the online market, where sellers' identities are not required and transactions are often not recorded, according to the report.

In the last 15 years, a large percentage of firearms sales in the U.S. have moved online, through sites like GunBroker.com, which reported about $1 billion in sales in 2009, up from about $12 million in 2000. The site has over 1.8 million registered users. Many sales on sites like GunBroker.com are "largely unregulated and undocumented," according to the report, making it difficult to calculate the exact number of online gun sales.

But investigators are certain the online market is vast. This year, on 10 websites alone, investigators found more than 25,000 guns for sale, according to the report.

"If people are inclined to break the law, the Internet provides them with more sources," said a spokesman from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, according to the report.

The report, called "Point, Click, Fire: An Investigation of Illegal Online Gun Sales," documents the findings of city investigators who tried to determine whether unlicensed private sellers advertising firearms online refuse to sell to buyers who could not pass a background check.

Members of the 15-person investigative team posed as illegal purchasers, asking sellers to meet in person to exchange guns for cash. Investigators recorded telephone calls with the sellers, and used concealed cameras to videotape their in-person interactions where guns were exchanged for cash. At a press conference today, Bloomberg showed the videos captured by the undercover investigators of the illegal sales.

In one telephone recording, an online seller agreed to sell a Glock 27 to a buyer who said he was not yet 18 years old, but had "been shooting guns [his] whole life."

Another recording shows this conversation: Undercover Buyer: "No background checks or anything?" Seller: "No." Undercover Buyer: "That's good because I probably couldn't pass one." Seller: (laughs) "Me neither."

Investigators looked at 125 online private sellers in 14 states who advertised on 10 websites, and 77 agreed to sell a gun to a buyer who could not pass a background check.

Some of the illegally-purchased guns were displayed at City Hall today, including a Ruger P95 9 mm handgun, the exact make and model of the weapon used to murder New York City Police Officer Peter Figoski earlier this week.

Roughly 82 percent of private sellers who advertised on Craigslist, which prohibits firearms listings, failed the test, agreeing to sell firearms to someone they knew to be a prohibited buyer.

"Craigslist really needs to clean up its act," Bloomberg said.

Recommendations

The report offers several recommendations which Bloomberg reiterated at the press conference: that federal law should require a background check for every gun sale, not only sales by licensed sellers; that the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) should improve enforcement of existing laws by conducting undercover investigations; and that websites should adopt stricter protocols to deter crime.

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