- The Washington Times - Sunday, January 27, 2008

NEW YORK (AP) — City officials say a federal judge helped their lawsuit against gun dealers by ruling there was no crime in sending undercover investigators into gun shops to try to buy weapons illegally.

But gun dealers see the same decision as support for their argument that they didn’t do anything wrong.

The sting operation was conducted two years ago. It was the basis for a civil case Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg’s administration brought against 27 gun dealers in Virginia, Georgia, Ohio, Pennsylvania and South Carolina. Mr. Bloomberg, an independent, targeted shops that the city thinks are responsible for selling guns traced back to crimes in New York City.

Fifteen dealers have settled and agreed to let a special master monitor their sales. Litigation continues against several of the remaining 12 in federal court in Brooklyn.

As part of the legal process, attorneys for some of the gun shops argued the city had violated the law by attempting the illegal buys.

Six of the gun shops were in Virginia, and the sting created tensions between Mr. Bloomberg and Virginia Attorney General Bob McDonnell. In April, Mr. McDonnell sent Mr. Bloomberg a letter warning him that as of July 1 a Virginia law would outlaw New York from sending undercover agents into the state to illegally purchase guns.

The feud flared again in May when Mr. McDonnell’s office issued a press release thanking Mr. Bloomberg’s office “for now agreeing to recognize and abide by Virginia law in future law-enforcement actions.”

Mr. McDonnell’s office cited a news report in which Mr. Bloomberg’s office said Virginia State Police would now be notified of stings targeting illegal gun sales.

However, the response from Mr. Bloomberg’s office seemed to say Mr. McDonnell was jumping the gun.

“We wish that the attorney general would put as much time into enforcing the laws already on the books as he does on issuing press releases and engaging in needless turf battles,” Bloomberg spokesman Jason Post told The Washington Times.

The Virginia Civil Defense League raised money to help the local gun dealers pay legal fees from the lawsuits by raffling, among other things, a handgun in what they called the “Bloomberg Gun GiveAway.”

Gun rights advocates and organizations like the National Rifle Association have also complained that Mr. Bloomberg’s gun sting was a criminal stunt. And the Justice Department even did its own inquiry as to whether the city was out of bounds.

But U.S. Magistrate Judge Cheryl Pollak said Friday the court had found “that the city’s actions do not constitute a crime or fraud.”

In the sting operation, private investigators hired by the city wore hidden cameras and attempted “straw purchases,” in which one person fills out legal forms and buys a gun for someone else. The scam, prohibited by federal law, is typically employed by people who cannot own firearms, such as convicted felons.

Judge Pollak agreed with the city’s argument that the buyer’s intent is the critical factor in a straw purchase. And in the purchases made by the city’s investigators, the buyer did not hand over the purchased gun later.

“No ‘straw’ sale took place because ownership was never transferred,” the judge wrote.

Staff writer Seth McLaughlin contributed to this report.

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