Mayor Bloomberg, Police Commissioner Raymond W. Kelly and Chief Policy Advisor John Feinblatt today announced the results of an investigation into internet gun sales, which found a vast and largely unregulated market for illegal guns, with 62 percent of private sellers willing to commit a felony by selling firearms to people who likely could not pass a background check. The investigation probed 10 websites that had 25,000 guns available for purchase and investigators contacted 125 private online gun sellers located in 14 states.
View video of online sellers agreeing to make illegal gun sales.
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The investigation included sellers on Craigslist, which prohibits the sale of firearms in its site according to its posted policies. The investigators clearly noted they probably could not pass a background check during each interaction with a seller. Videos of the illegal sales, including where the investigator meets the seller and the weapon and cash is exchanged, and a report on online gun sales – “Point, Click, Fire” – are available at www.nyc.gov. The Mayor unveiled the videos and the results of the investigation at City Hall, where some of the illegally purchased guns were displayed, including an illegally sold Ruger P95 9mm handgun – the exact make and model of the weapon a career criminal used to murder New York City Police Officer Peter Figoski earlier this week.
“Over the past decade, we’ve launched a wide-ranging attack on illegal guns – and today, we’re opening a new front in that battle by targeting what has become an increasingly prevalent and dangerous problem: illegal gun sales on the internet,” said Mayor Bloomberg. “Our investigators found that online gun sellers were all too willing to make illegal sales – and one of the guns we bought was the same make and model as the one that took the life of Police Officer Figoski this week. When illegal guns can be bought and sold without background checks, tragic and deadly consequences result.”
“We’ve been contending with the Iron Pipeline bringing guns into New York City, the last thing that we need is an electronic pipeline,” said Police Commissioner Kelly. “When the world learned that Lee Harvey Oswald purchased his weapon through the mail, there was a huge outcry and the Gun Control Act of 1968 regulated the sale of guns through the mail. We shouldn’t have to wait for the assassination of a president or the killing of a police officer to dismantle a conduit bringing illicit guns into the city.”
“This investigation – for the first time – takes a snapshot of this new online gun market, and unfortunately it’s not a pretty picture,” said the Mayor’s Chief Policy Advisor John Feinblatt. “Congress has to take action to require background checks of all sales, but the websites who profit off of this dangerous unregulated online market can clean up their acts right now. They can take simple steps to lift the veil of secrecy and reduce illegal gun sales by requiring sellers and buyers to provide identification, training users to follow the law, creating an effective way to flag violations and searching their sites for illegal activity. There’s nothing extraordinary about those recommendations and in fact, many responsible websites already have them in place.”
There are more than 4,000 websites that offer guns for sale, according to the Department of Justice. Similar to gun shows, many websites offer forums for both Federally licensed dealers and unlicensed “private sellers” to advertise side by side, creating a lucrative new market for firearms. Licensed dealers are required to conduct background checks on prospective buyers, but private sellers are not – a gap in Federal law often called the “private sale loophole.” Private sellers may not, however, sell guns to people they have reason to believe could not pass a background check – a law most those contacted in the investigation would have violated. An estimated 40 percent of gun sales in the United States are conducted privately, according to the Department of Justice.
The City hired licensed private investigators supervised by the global investigative firm Kroll to conduct a series of online purchases. Investigators captured audio of telephone calls with private sellers who advertise on websites, and used concealed cameras during in-person interactions. The investigative team placed telephone calls to 125 private sellers who posted online gun advertisements on 10 websites in 14 states, including Arizona, Colorado, Indiana, Kansas, Kentucky, Louisiana, New Mexico, Ohio, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas, Utah, Virginia and Wisconsin.
A clear majority of the sellers – 77 of 125 private sellers – failed the integrity test by agreeing to sell to a purchaser who said he probably couldn’t pass a background check.
Private sellers on Craigslist failed the integrity test at the highest rate, despite the fact that the site says that it prohibits the listing of weapons on its server. On the five websites where investigators contacted the most sellers, an illegal sale was agreed to:
- Craigslist.com: 82 percent of the time
- Glocktalk.com: 78 percent
- Gunlistings.org: 77 percent
- KSL.com: 67 percent
- Armslist.com: 54 percent
eBay, which reportedly owns a substantial share of Craigslist, also has a policy prohibiting its users from selling guns, but unlike Craigslist, eBay.com appears to be enforcing its policy. Several reviews of the site by investigators did not identify a single firearm for sale on the site.
Investigators arranged to meet five of the sellers who failed the integrity test in person and exchange the guns for cash. As a result, investigators purchased four handguns, including one assault-style pistol, and an assault rifle, which ranged in price from $300 - $650.
The 48 private sellers who refused to make illegal sales confirms that some sellers know and obey Federal law governing gun sales to prohibited purchasers. As one seller explained, “because you just told me that, though, I can’t sell it to you…because if you just told me that you can’t pass, it would be a felony for me to sell it to you, so thanks, have a good day.”
Recommendations for Reducing Illegal Online Gun Sales
To ensure the legality of online gun sales, the report says, Congress, Federal law enforcement and websites hosting gun sales should take steps to keep guns out of the wrong hands. Among the recommendations in Point, Click, Fire:
- Federal law should require a background check for every gun sale. Legislation now pending in both chambers of Congress – The Fix Gun Checks Act of 2011 (S.436/H.R.1781 (112th Congress)) – would enact this reform.
- The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms & Explosives (ATF) should improve enforcement of existing laws. ATF should conduct undercover investigations on a variety of websites, track whether guns recovered in crimes were originally sold online and offer online tutorials to train sellers and buyers on federal gun laws governing online sales.
- Websites should adopt tougher protocols for self-policing. Websites that permit gun sales demand transparency from sellers and buyers and facilitate reporting of suspicious behavior by site users.
The Mayor’s Chief Policy Advisory John Feinblatt wrote to websites reviewed in the investigation to request meetings to review the evidence and discuss measures the sites can take to deter criminal sales.
The City has submitted evidence from the investigation, including audio and video, to ATF Director B. Todd Jones and to the ATF field offices in the locations where purchases were made.
2009 and 2011 Undercover Gun Show Investigations
In 2009, the City of New York conducted a similar investigation and documented problems at seven gun shows in three states. Nineteen of 30 private sellers at these gun shows – 63 percent – sold guns to investigators who said they could not pass a background check. Since the 2009 investigation, four of those seven gun shows have improved their safety practices.
The City conducted new undercover investigations at Arizona gun shows shortly after the January 8, 2011 mass shooting in Tucson, Arizona. Investigators purchased a Glock pistol with a 33-round extended magazine, like the weapon Jared Loughner used to kill six people and would 13 others, including Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords, with no background check. City investigators bought two other semi-automatic pistols with no background checks even after the sellers were told that the buyers probably could not pass a background check.
About the Investigation
A team of investigators supervised by Kroll, a leader in business intelligence and investigations, conducted undercover investigations to capture audio and video recordings of online gun sellers. The investigators were licensed as private investigators in more than 21 states, with more than 80 years in combined law enforcement experience, including retired prosecutors and police officers. Every investigator who participated in the integrity tests was required to complete an intensive training program designed and administered by Kroll.