07/21/2010 10:44 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Law Enforcement to Congress: Require Background Checks for Gun Sales

A former special agent with the Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives Bureau, a former superintendent of the Virginia State Police, and the head of the Firearms Committee of the International Association of Chiefs of Police were among those who provided expert testimony July 15 at the Crime Sub-Committee of the U.S. House Judiciary Committee's forum on legislation to close the "gun show loophole."

The loophole allows "private sellers" of firearms to bypass Brady background checks, a loophole that is exploited, most often, at gun shows. Such sales are an easy way for convicted felons, the dangerously mentally ill, and other prohibited purchasers to arm themselves.

A bill to close the "gun show loophole", introduced by Representatives Carolyn McCarthy (D-NY) and Michael Castle (R-DE), has more than 100 cosponsors. The standing room-only forum was chaired by Rep. Bobby Scott (D-VA) and also included (in addition to McCarthy and Castle), participation by Rep. John Conyers (D-MI and Chair of the Judiciary Committee) and Rep. Mike Quigley (D-IL).

Here is part of what the distinguished, veteran law enforcement officials had to say:

Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives (ATFE) Special Agent Gerald A. Nunziato

During my 28 years as a Special Agent investigating how criminals acquire firearms, gun shows played a dominant role in supplying firearms to the criminal element.

During the 1970's, thousands of crime guns were recovered yearly from criminals in Detroit. According to a study conducted by ATF in the mid-1970's, Project Identification, 92 percent of traceable crime handguns recovered in Detroit were first sold at retail in states other than Michigan... My experiences investigating crime in Detroit support my belief that gun shows are a major outlet for burglars to sell stolen firearms and a place for criminals to shop for the types of firearms they desire.

For over six years, I reviewed the Detroit Police Department's daily arrest reports to cross-check the names of individuals arrested with firearms against a list of violent felons, narcotics traffickers, and outlaw gang members that were identified jointly by ATF and the Detroit Police as targets to be prosecuted under federal laws for illegal firearm possession.

...I used the ATF's firearm tracing system to discover the retail history of the firearms. When possible, I would contact the first retail purchaser by telephone to ascertain how they disposed of the firearm.

...In addition, I developed informants that were familiar with the illegal market in firearms.

When a suspect would discuss the source of the firearm they purchased "off the street," they often said the person they obtained the firearm from claimed it was a "clean gun" (not involved in a crime) since it came from a gun show in Ohio or Michigan.

This concept of "clean guns" available at gun shows was confirmed by many informants as well. Both the suspects and informants claimed they needed a particular type of firearm, and could not wait for it to be randomly offered for sale by criminal associates. They sought out the known firearms traffickers... to obtain the type of weapon they needed. Criminals, especially gang members, wanted specific guns, like the .44 magnum revolver used by Clint Eastwood in the Dirty Harry movies, or those carried by actors in other violent-themed movies.

...In Detroit, suspects did not want to be arrested in possession of a stolen firearm. They knew that possession of stolen property was a felony, while possession of a firearm in most cases (at that time) was a misdemeanor. ...It is my belief that gun shows are a conduit for moving stolen firearms into the legitimate retail firearms market. Buyers at gun shows have a huge selection of firearms, and the sellers of stolen firearms and those with criminal intentions have little fear of being detected.

In 1990, I was transferred to the ATF headquarters in Washington, D.C. as the Firearms Interdiction Coordinator. In 1991, I was promoted to head the ATF National Tracing Center. During my time at the NTC, the number of firearms associated with criminal activity increased from approximately 50,000 per year in 1991 to over 250,000 in 1998. As criminals became aware of tracing, they adapted. They used "straw purchasers" more frequently and sought out used firearms that were difficult and almost impossible to trace.

Under my direction, NTC initiated a program to try to uncover the source of these untraceable firearms to aid law enforcement. To develop the program, special agents assigned to the NTC, and myself, conducted meetings with ATF agents nationwide and visited 25 of the largest police departments in the country to solicit ideas to cut down on the number of untraceable firearms. The common answer was to regulate gun shows.

...After I retired in 1999, I began to frequent gun shows in Ohio, Pennsylvania, Michigan, Georgia, and Virginia. At these shows I could purchase any type of firearm available, both legal and illegal, without having to identify myself. In addition, I could buy books on constructing booby traps for your home, building bombs from common household products, how to blow up buildings, how to assassinate, and how to use firearms and bombs to protect oneself from the U.S. government.

There were ads for high-powered rifles that could shoot airplanes and helicopters out of the sky and defeat the protection of most armored vehicles. They also advertised bullets that could penetrate the vests worn by police officers. In addition, Nazi and other hate groups pamphlets were frequently handed out. I witnessed one individual purchase over $3,000 in firearms without being asked for identification, or even his name. ..The only question he was asked was did he have cash!

Colonel W. Gerald Massengill, Retired Superintendent of the Virginia State Police and Chair of the Virginia Tech Mass Shooting Review Panel

Virginians are, as I am, very passionate about their right to possess firearms. Any law that affects the process of buying, selling or possessing firearms in Virginia will be viewed cautiously by Virginians and (the) legislature. However, polls show Virginians favor background checks at gun shows and closing the loophole.

...Government requires all sorts of things, which are there to protect us in today's world -- from telling us how fast we can drive to how to cross a street. Background checks to buy a firearm, which take normally just minutes, is one of those measures whose time has come to help ensure the public's safety with regards to the problem of gun violence, which kills thousands of our people each year.

Is there a link between gun laws and the movement of illegal guns in America? A report from the Mayors Against Illegal Guns shows there is such a link. Unfortunately, Virginia is one of the higher "source states" highlighted in the study. Terms like, "the iron pipeline," and the export of illegal guns to other states, as well as background checks for all sales at gun shows are examined in the study. Of particular interest is the report data that show that "states that do not require background checks for all handgun sales at gun shows have an average crime gun export rate that is about twice the rate of states that do such background checks." For me, the finding and analysis of the report is not surprising. The report merely provides justification for commonsense gun laws.

On April 16, 2007, a lone gunman on the campus of Virginia Tech, after buying two handguns from firearms dealers, murdered 32 people. The majority of those killed were students who were to graduate in a few weeks.

...We will never know if a world leader or a cure for some terrible disease died that day. Thirty people killed in nine minutes. The shooter had been adjudicated mentally ill by a special justice. The shooter was able to purchase his two handguns without rejection, due to his name not being placed in the ineligible data files of the State Police. This happened because the shooter was ordered by a special justice to receive outpatient care for his mental illness. At the time of the shootings, only those individuals ordered to receive in-patient care for mental illness were place in the ineligible files.

Virginia's governor (Tim Kaine, at the time) and (its) attorney general, along with our legislature, promptly corrected this problem. I believe, as did the Review Panel, that it would be remiss to not ask the question: Where would the next Virginia Tech shooter -- one that cannot buy from a licensed dealer -- where would he be likely to go to purchase his guns? Probably he would go to a location where no questions are asked and sales are made from the trunks of vehicles, such as a publicly invited gun show. The Panel recommended, without dissent, that the "gun show loophole" be closed.

Scott Knight, Police Chief of Chaska, Minnesota, and Chairman of the International Association of Chiefs of Police (IACP) Firearms Committee

The IACP is the world's oldest and largest association of law enforcement executives, with more than 22,000 members in 100 countries.
The IACP is a strong supporter of H.R. 2324 and I believe there is a strong need for it.

Every day, citizens throughout the country face increasing threats to their safety and well-being from criminals carrying illegal firearms. The news is filled with stories documenting the horror that violent crime visits upon community after community and family after family.

The simple truth is that average Americans are affected by gun violence every day. Nearly 30,000 American lives are lost to gun violence each year -- a number far higher than in any other developed country. Since 1963, more Americans died by gunfire than perished in combat in the whole of the 20th century. And, in the years since the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, 99,000 Americans have been murdered.

No community or person in America is immune.

The impact goes far beyond the dead and injured. Gun violence reaches across borders and jurisdictions and compromises the safety of everyone along the way.

Beyond the personal tragedies and emotional wreckage, gun violence also
imposes extraordinary societal burdens and financial costs. It results in more than $2.3 billion in medical costs every year -- of which taxpayers pay $1.1 billion. There are other costs as well: the money we pay for law enforcement to combat gun violence; the lost productivity of the killed and wounded; the lost economic opportunity in communities plagued by gun violence; and the devastation to the fabric of civil society.

Law enforcement understands and embraces its leadership role in combating illegal firearms and gun violence and law enforcement leaders need public support: we need partners in every community; and we need elected officials, in Congress and in state legislatures, to stop catering to special interests and instead act in the public interest to reduce the terrible, and escalating, risk of gun violence in America.

The IACP calls on Congress to swiftly pass H.R. 2324.

Paul Helmke is president of the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence. Follow the Brady Campaign on Facebook and Twitter.