New York turns up heat on gun dealers

The city launches a new strategy to stem the flow of guns and take some dealers to court.

New York and other major cities are preparing to take on Congress and the gun lobby.

The reason: They're tired of their streets being flooded with guns bought somewhere else. In New York City, for instance, 85 percent of the guns used in crimes are bought legally in other states with far less stringent gun-control laws, most of them in the South.

Other East Coast metropolises, from Boston to Washington, face a similar gun influx. And so, despite a recent federal law that protects gun dealers and manufacturers from litigation, city leaders have signaled the start of a national movement to sue out-of-state gun dealers they consider "bad apples" - those who knowingly sell to so-called straw buyers and others who traffic in illegal guns.

"Right now, about 1 percent of gun dealers account for almost 60 percent of guns used in crimes nationally," New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg said in his recent State of the City address. "This year, we are going to launch lawsuits against these irresponsible dealers, and we are going to hold them accountable for the terrible damage their guns cause."

That is a central part of his five-pronged strategy to attack gun violence in New York. It also includes toughening penalties for possession of illegal guns, intensive interrogating of suspects toting illegal guns so the source of the weapons can be better traced, and setting up a gun-offender registry similar to the ones set up for sex offenders so communities can know if a convicted gun offender lives in the neighborhood.

But the legal assault on gun dealers is the action expected to gain the most attention, and support, from other cities. Boston Mayor Tom Menino has already signaled he intends to join New York in its direct challenge to lawmakers in Washington.

In October, Congress approved legislation that gives dealers and manufacturers broad immunity unless they knowingly violate a law. New York contends the dealers it's going after are indeed aware that some of their buyers are fronts for traffickers.

In July 2004, Congress also enacted a law that forbids the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives from making public the data that trace a gun's history, which can be vital in identifying irresponsible dealers. And last fall, lawmakers placed an amendment in ATF's spending bill that forbids such trace information from being used as evidence in court.

Advocates of withholding such information say it's important to prevent sensitive law-enforcement information from becoming public.

"Congress finally got frustrated by politicians and gun-ban advocates misusing their trace data in a way that was not only misrepresenting the truth, but was releasing sensitive information that could impede criminal investigation," says Wayne LaPierre, executive vice president of the National Rifle Association (NRA).

For instance, Mr. LaPierre says, a criminal enterprise could be alerted about an ATF investigation if certain trace data are made public. Just because an illegal gun is traced to a certain dealer, he says, it doesn't necessarily mean that dealer did anything wrong.

Urban leaders and gun control advocates argue that trace data can be made public in a way that protects ongoing investigations, and courts have so far sided with them. They also say that if a large number of illegal guns are traced to one dealer, the public has a right to know that and use the information in court.

"The gun lobby would like people to believe guns just fall out of the sky into criminals' hands, but we've learned the current distribution system allows gun manufacturers and dealers to divert large numbers of guns to illegal secondary markets," says Dennis Henigan, director of the Brady Center to Prevent Gun Violence in Washington.

The illegal secondary market is allegedly stocked by dealers who sell to straw buyers, who legally purchase guns and then transfer them to felons prohibited from doing so. This market is also allegedly stocked by those dealers who allow multiple purchases of guns, which are then transferred to traffickers. As many as 25 percent of the guns manufactured every year end up being used in a crime, gun-control advocates estimate.

"The gun industry has an incentive to maintain the continuous flow of guns into the illegal market," says Mr. Henigan. "It profits from every gun sold to a trafficker."

Gun manufacturers adamantly deny that - even calling the charge slanderous. They say that anytime a gun gets into a criminal's hands, it's not good for the industry. Some manufacturers have set up voluntary codes of conduct for their wholesalers. The industry has also worked with the ATF to offer training sessions to dealers to help them identify straw buyers and multiple purchases to prevent trafficking.

"[Gun manufacturers and dealers] are not responsible for guns used in crime," says Lawrence Keane, senior vice president of the National Shooting Sports Foundation in Newtown, Conn., which represents the nation's gun manufacturers. "They may have sold firearms that were later subsequently traced by ATF, but that does not mean that anyone in the chain of commerce or the first retail purchaser has done anything wrong."

But city leaders and gun control advocates say gun manufacturers could, and should, be doing more. "We have no quarrel with legal dealers. This is about the bad apples; this is about the criminals," says John Feinblatt, Mayor Bloomberg's criminal justice coordinator. As the city increases its crackdown on the street thugs who use guns, it also has a civic responsibility to remove the dealers who are the source of the guns, he says.

"What you want is a comprehensive solution that attacks both the supply and the demand," says Mr. Feinblatt. "You ignore one and you do it at your peril."

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