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Taking on the Gun Show Loophole

Roughly two-thirds of unlicensed gun show dealers sold weapons to undercover investigators even after those investigators told dealers that they probably wouldn’t pass a background check, according to a report released this week by New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg.

The sellers are exploiting an enormous loophole in the nation’s gun laws. While federal statute requires licensed gun dealers to perform background checks on all prospective gun buyers, unlicensed sellers — like those who often set up shop at roaming gun shows — are exempt. The background checks are designed to prevent sales to those legally ineligible to own guns, including felons, illegal immigrants and the severely mentally ill.

Federal law does prohibit unlicensed dealers from making sales if they have reason to believe that the buyer wouldn’t pass a background check. Yet in 19 of 30 cases, investigators were sold weapons even after they’d made comments indicating that they would likely fail such a test. “That’s good about the background check because I probably couldn’t pass one,” says one undercover buyer. The smiling dealer responded, “I wouldn’t pass either, bud.”

The loophole can have fatal consequences. The Department of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms estimates that 30 percent of all trafficked guns originate at gun shows. The issue is particularly a concern in places like New York, where shootings and gun trafficking are endemic. ATF investigations have also revealed that weapons purchased freely at gun shows are also making their way into Mexico, where violent cartels are using them to protect their drug trade.

He has a difficult road ahead. While some Democrats have, for years, had their eyes on closing the gun show loophole, the gun lobby has proven too powerful to get the legislation through Congress. Indeed, even in the wake of the 1999 Columbine killings, the National Rifle Association was successful in killing a Senate-passed bill to close the gun show loophole. If that political environment wasn’t electric enough to pass the legislation, it’s hard to imagine that a few videos — as compelling as they are — would inspire in lawmakers a change of heart.

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