NYC Investigation Highlights Illegal Online Gun Sales

December 14, 2011 4:47 pm ET — Chris Brown & Matt Gertz

At a press conference this afternoon, New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg and Police Commissioner Raymond Kelly released the results of the latest investigation by New York City targeting illegal gun sales. The investigation revealed that gaping loopholes in the law allow people who are legally banned from owning firearms to purchase weapons online — even if they acknowledge to the seller their inability to pass a background check.

During the press conference, Bloomberg said these online sales "pose a significant threat to public safety" due to "widespread disregard for the law" among private sellers online:

Investigators examined 125 private sellers from 14 states who advertised on 10 different websites that had a total of over 25,000 guns available for purchase. Private sellers are not legally required to conduct background checks, but it is a felony for them to sell a gun to someone they have reason to believe is a prohibited purchaser. Nonetheless, the investigation found that "Seventy-seven of 125 online sellers agreed to sell a gun to someone who said he could not pass a background check — a 62% fail rate."

Notably, the investigation included Craigslist, which bans the sale of firearms. Despite this ban, NYC's investigators conducted 17 integrity tests of private firearms sellers on the site, finding 14 individuals that were willing to sell to someone who said they couldn't pass a background check. At 82 percent, that's the highest rate of the five websites they checked. 

In this video released by the investigators, a Kentucky seller on Craigslist agrees to sell an assault rifle to an investigator who says he couldn't pass a background check:

To ensure the legality of online gun sales and prevent firearms from getting into the hands of prohibited persons, the report recommends that Congress pass legislation requiring a background check for every gun sale; that the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives improve their enforcement of existing laws by stepping up their efforts with regard to online sales; and that websites that permit gun sales adopt tougher protocols for self-policing.

The news that some private sellers sold guns to people who indicated they couldn't pass a background check shouldn't come as a surprise. Previously, a hidden camera investigation by New York City found the same willingness to sell to people who identified themselves as probably unlikely to pass a background check at gun shows across Ohio, Tennessee, and Nevada.

Two weeks after the Tucson mass shooting and failed assassination attempt of Rep. Gabrielle Giffords (D-AZ), another investigation at an Arizona gun show had the same result. 

On November 30, New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman announced that charges had been filed against ten people for selling guns at a gun show without performing a background check, as is required for all sales at gun shows under state law.