New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg on Wednesday ratcheted up his high-profile war against illegal sales of firearms at gun shows, alleging that a recent city-sponsored, three-state undercover investigation found widespread violations of federal gun sale rules.
And, in a reality show twist, the resulting "Gun Show Undercover" report provides extensive video of dealers appearing to ignore laws intended to prevent gun sales to felons and others with unsavory backgrounds, and selling to "straw purchasers" — stand-ins for others.
"The gun show loophole is a deadly serious problem," Bloomberg said in a statement. "And this undercover operation exposes just how pervasive and serious it is."
The sting, the second engineered by Bloomberg in the past three years, is just the latest tactic the billionaire mayor has used to advocate for tougher national gun laws and enforcement. But pro-gun advocates, including the National Rifle Association, say that there are adequate laws on the books and Bloomberg — who toyed with a presidential run and now is seeking a third term as mayor — is simply looking to score political points.
The latest sting operation was conducted between May and August by 40 private investigators hired by New York City. They tested sellers in seven gun shows that were held in Ohio, Tennessee and Nevada.
Of the 47 gun sellers they tested — both private and licensed dealers — 74 percent appeared to violate federal law, investigators say.
Findings With Electoral Implications
In 2006, Bloomberg had private investigators conduct a similar sting operation in five states. They targeted gun stores where weapons linked to hundreds of crimes in New York City had been purchased.
Based on the results, the Bloomberg administration sued 27 stores that it alleged had allowed straw purchasers. But the mayor was later warned by the U.S. Justice Department that such stings may not be legal, and some states have since outlawed them.
One of those states was Virginia, where a hard-fought governor's race is now playing out, and where Republican nominee Bob McDonnell's candidacy has been bolstered by more than $537,000 in ads by the National Rifle Association.
In fact, as Bloomberg was rolling out the results of his latest sting Wednesday, the NRA was rolling out its latest ad for McDonnell. The target? Bloomberg.
The ad features an actor portraying a New York City mobster, complete with a heavy city accent and caricatured, Italian-style music playing in the background. Speaking to the camera, the character recalls that "a while back" Bloomberg made a visit to Virginia.
"You see, the mayor thinks you guys are responsible for our New York City crime problem," he says. "But when Mayor Bloomberg got down here, your guy, Bob McDonnell, kicked him out. That was very disrespectful."
He then advises Virginians to vote against McDonnell: "I want you to do it for New York — if you know what's good for you."
NRA spokesman Andrew Arulanandam said that, in his latest sting, Bloomberg was "grandstanding rather than doing something practical."
"The more interesting angle here, and the question that needs to be asked, is why didn't Mayor Bloomberg work with local, state and federal law enforcement officials and arrest these people on the spot?" Arulanandam said.
The NRA, he said, has "always fought for and believes in more prosecution."
"If anyone has violated any law, arrest them and prosecute them," he said.
At the Gun Owners of America, a nonprofit, pro-gun rights lobbying group, spokesman Michael Hammond suggested that the mayor's agenda is to ultimately outlaw private dealer sales at gun shows. Unlike licensed gun dealers, private dealers are not required by law to run instant background checks on prospective purchasers.
"He has a lot of money," Hammond says, "and he thinks gun shows are the flavor of the month."
A Call For New Laws, More Enforcement
In the city's investigation report, the Bloomberg administration calls for a federal law requiring private dealers at gun shows to run background checks on purchasers through the FBI's National Instant Criminal Background Check System, or NICS.
Licensed dealers are already compelled to do so under the 1993 Brady Handgun Violence Protection Act.
The Bloomberg administration also asks for increased enforcement of gun laws by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives.
A similar plea for more enforcement was made earlier this month by the bipartisan, 450-member Mayors Against Illegal Guns coalition, headed by Bloomberg and Boston Mayor Thomas Menino.
In a petition to President Obama, the mayors proposed funding for more ATF agents across the nation, pushed for stepped-up prosecution of people who don't pass background checks at gun shows, and urged better coordination between agents in different states and offices.
The intent of the petition, the coalition says, is to enforce existing laws.
Tougher Gun Laws? Won't Be Easy In Congress
The path to new laws — including one that would require private dealers to run background checks — faces difficulty.
"It's a tough lift," says Ladd Everitt of the Coalition to Stop Gun Violence. "The challenge for our movement has been to generate the grass-roots fervor that NRA does with its base, many of whom are single-issue voters.
"It's been tough for us to develop a single-issue public-safety voter," he says.
Proposed bills in the House and Senate would require that private sellers at gun shows run prospective customers through the NICS. But Everitt says the political climate — despite the Democratic hold on both chambers — has not been amenable to change.
"In expanding their majority in Congress, the Democrats have embraced candidates not discernible from Republicans," he said. "Now we're starting to see some of the perils in that strategy."
He and other gun control advocates say that Bloomberg has managed to keep the issue of illegal gun sales in the public eye. It is estimated that two out of every five guns sold in the United States change hands without a background check, according to the Coalition to Stop Gun Violence.
Earlier this year, ABC News aired a report that followed the brother of one of the 32 people killed in the 2007 Virginia Tech massacre as he purchased a trunkload of guns at a gun show —no questions asked.
Seventeen states have some gun show background-check laws on the books; 33 do not.
"The screening is a joke," Everitt says.
While the climate for change is difficult, Everitt says that Bloomberg's approach— including getting gun show videos on the Internet — "has real potential for impact."