Before Background Check Legislation, 2009 Sting Operation Showed Holes In System

04/17/2013 12:08 pm ET | Updated Apr 17, 2013
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WASHINGTON -- The New York Times on Wednesday morning ran a data-heavy investigative piece on the number of gun sales over the Internet that don't involve screening for potentially illegal buyers.

The piece shines a light on a still relatively young and furtive market where background checks don't have much reach. But the holes in the system shouldn't be too surprising. For several years, private investigations have revealed how patchy the background-check screening process is.

In 2009, the city of New York under Mayor Michael Bloomberg undertook a quasi-sting operation to expose the so-called gun show loophole. With hidden cameras, investigators purchased firearms from sellers at gun shows in Ohio, Tennessee, and Nevada. Sometimes they were asked only to show proof that they lived in the state. On other occasions, they weren't screened at all. In one instance, an undercover investigator told a seller that he couldn't pass a background check. He got a gun anyway.

"The idea was to look at private sellers to see how they would behave in a scenario where the purchaser gave them a reason to believe they would be prohibited from buying a gun," said a person involved with the operation, who could speak only on condition of anonymity. "They would say, 'hey, do you do background checks because I don't think I could pass one.' Sixty-three percent of the time, they were willing to sell to someone who they believed couldn't pass a background check."

As the Senate prepares to consider legislation to expand background checks, gun control advocates point to investigations like New York City's and The New York Times' as examples of precisely what needs fixing. The Senate, nevertheless, is not likely to pass the measure. Sixty votes are needed and as of Wednesday morning, only 59 were likely.

Those who conducted the New York City investigation probably won't be surprised by congressional inaction; gun bills are some of the hardest legislative hauls.

After results of the New York study were announced, there was no hearing on the Hill or legislative movement in response. A year and a half later, after Rep. Gabrielle Giffords (D-Ariz.) was nearly killed during a shooting at an event in her district, the city did another undercover investigation, this time of gun shows in Arizona. Once again, there was no congressional action.

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