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New York City Sues 15 Gun Dealers in 5 States, Charging Illegal Sales
NY Times
May 16, 2006

Testing a novel strategy in its aggressive campaign against illegal firearms, New York City sent teams of private investigators posing as gun buyers to stores in 5 states, catching 15 dealers making illegal sales, officials said yesterday.

An investigator buying a gun in South Boston, Va., as part of a sting operation aimed at the sources of guns used in New York crimes.

In the two-month sting operation, which city officials and gun control advocates said was the first of such wide scope, teams of operatives wearing hidden cameras traveled to Georgia, Ohio, Pennsylvania, South Carolina and Virginia to make what are known as straw purchases, a violation of federal law in which one individual submits to the required federal background check for a gun that is clearly to be used by someone else.

All 15 dealers, whose guns have been linked to more than 500 crimes in New York City from 1994 to 2001, improperly sold a gun to the private investigators, officials said. The evidence is to be used in a lawsuit against the dealers filed yesterday in Federal District Court in Brooklyn and is being shared with federal law enforcement agencies.

"Our suit offers clear and compelling evidence that guns sold by these dealers are used in crimes by people ineligible to own a gun far more frequently than guns from other dealers," Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg said at a City Hall news conference announcing the operation. "In other words, these dealers are the worst of the worst."

In January 2001, a 12-year-old boy playing with a semiautomatic handgun from Mickalis Pawn Shop in Summerville, S.C., accidentally shot someone in the chest, officials said. It was one of 49 guns from the store linked to crimes in New York City. That year, one of 42 such guns sold by A-1 Jewelry & Pawn in Augusta, Ga., was used in the attempted murder of uniformed police officers.

The lawsuit seeks monetary damages from the 15 dealers and the appointment of a special master to monitor their sales closely. City officials said they might also ask the court to shut the gun businesses down.

The evidence collected is being shared with the Justice Department, including the United States attorneys with jurisdiction over the dealers, and with the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, an agency that Mr. Bloomberg has said has been "asleep at the switch" in policing gun sales.

The operation is one of the steps the Bloomberg administration has adopted after seeing some of its efforts against the gun trade sputter. Since his second term started this year, Mr. Bloomberg has been outspoken on gun trafficking and has tried to focus national attention on the issue, coordinating with other mayors, pursuing lawsuits against gun manufacturers and lobbying Congress not to pass what he calls "godawful bills."

For instance, Congress has already limited the city's ability to obtain new data from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives tracing the origin of guns used in crimes and is considering bills that would essentially make those limits permanent.

The new sting operation, which Mr. Bloomberg plans to discuss with lawmakers in Washington today, is in part a response to a law passed last year that protects gun manufacturers and dealers from lawsuits unless they are engaged in illegal activity.

"Our opponents never tire of telling us that we ought to be going after the people who break the law with guns," Mr. Bloomberg said. "Well, O.K. You asked for something; you got it."

Wayne LaPierre, executive vice president of the National Rifle Association, said he had not seen the lawsuit yet and declined to comment on it, but he added that his organization was opposed to straw purchases. "They're against the law," he said.

Gun-control advocates praised the sting operation and the lawsuit. "The City of New York is disproportionately affected by rogue gun dealers who play a key role in this system, since the vast majority of crime guns used in the city come from other states with lax gun laws," said Jackie Kuhls, executive director of New Yorkers Against Gun Violence. "The legal action New York City is taking against these dealers sends a message that not all government officials are willing to look the other way."

Other cities, including Gary, Ind., Chicago and Detroit, have taken similar approaches in their own jurisdictions, sometimes using local law enforcement officials, said Elizabeth Haile, a staff lawyer at the Brady Center to Prevent Gun Violence. "This would be the first time that they looked at sources all over the country no matter what state it was," she said.

To build its case, the city chose roughly 60 gun dealers to investigate based on data it had received earlier from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives. Investigators from the James Mintz Group, a private investigation outfit, worked in pairs, with one looking at the merchandise, talking with the salesman and handling the weapon in making a decision to purchase while the other wandered the store, seemingly uninterested.

When it came time to buy the gun and fill out the forms for a background check, the first operative, often a man, would call in his partner, frequently a woman, who had not been part of the discussion of the weapon, officials said. The second investigator would fill out the background paperwork, and the first one would pay for the gun in cash.

In several instances, the gun dealer followed the law and refused the sale, but the 15 named in the lawsuit ultimately sold a weapon to one of the investigators, Mr. Bloomberg said,

One of the 15 outlets was Woody's Pawn Shop in Orangeburg, S.C., where officials have traced 98 guns connected to crimes in the city, including the death of a 31-year-old man in Brooklyn in 2001.

Chan Holman, the owner, said he would not jeopardize his business selling 100 to 150 guns a month by breaking the law.

"We do sell an awful lot of handguns, and I can't control what hands they end up in," he said in a telephone interview. "We just do the best we can to make sure they get into the right hands."

Original Text

Gun Dealers kill People, guns don't.