Hundreds of high-volume private gun dealers are transferring tens of thousands of firearms every year over the Internet without conducting background checks, according to a report from the gun control advocacy group Mayors Against Illegal Guns based on an investigation conducted from August to October.
The report was released as gun control advocates try to keep pressure on a divided Congress to work on legislation increasing the checks. Nothing was accomplished this year despite heavy lobbying from the White House and other groups in the wake of the Connecticut school shootings.
The investigation looked at listings on ArmsList.com, a firearms clearinghouse akin to Craigslist, where prospective buyers can check out supplies posted by individual sellers.
The investigation found that “high-volume sellers” — those who listed five or more guns — posted 29 percent of the private seller gun ads on ArmsList.com during the period, a rate at which the sellers would transfer 243,800 guns each year.
Beyond posting ads for multiple firearms, 58 percent of the high-volume sellers contacted by the investigators offered at least one additional indicator that they were “engaging in the business,” including selling guns new or in the original packaging, selling guns for profit and buying and reselling guns within a short period.
Federal law defines “engaging in the business” as “the repetitive purchase and resale of firearms with the principal objective of livelihood and profit.”
Private sellers, meanwhile, make “occasional sales” or sell from a “personal collection.”
The distinction might seem subjective, but the effect is significant: Federally licensed dealers are required to perform the checks, while private sellers are not.
Advocates say as many as 40 percent of gun transactions are conducted without background checks. Gun rights activists say that figure is grossly overstated and based on outdated data, and that the vast majority of private sellers conducting business at gun shows or online perform background checks.
In April, a compromise measure from Sen. Joe Manchin III, West Virginia Democrat, and Patrick J. Toomey, Pennsylvania Republican, that would expand the required checks to sales conducted online and at gun shows failed in the Senate, effectively putting federal legislation on ice for the rest of the year.
Mr. Manchin says next year — an election year — won’t be any easier. Four Democrats opposed the measure, including two who are up for re-election in red states — Sen. Mark L Pryor of Arkansas and Sen. Mark Begich of Alaska.
He said it will be difficult to get the extra votes necessary but hinted that the bill’s failure might not have been entirely a result of the legislation’s specific content.
“What we found out is that people just didn’t trust government that they were going to stop there,” he said on CNN. “So they said, ‘Hey, Joe, we’re OK with the bill, we like the bill, the bill’s not bad at all, we can live with that, but we just don’t trust government stopping and doing what we say we’re going to do.’”
President Obama and gun-control advocates launched an aggressive push to expand the checks after the shooting deaths of 20 children and six educators at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., last December, but legislation at the federal level stalled and was not revisited after April.
Dick Heller, a plaintiff in the historic 2008 District of Columbia v. Heller U.S. Supreme Court case that declared the District’s near universal ban on handguns unconstitutional, said he can identify with the perspective of retired astronaut Mark Kelly, an avid gun owner who has become an advocate for increased background checks since his wife, Gabrielle Giffords, who was representing her Arizona district in Congress, was gravely wounded by a crazed gunman at a constituent event in Tucson in January 2011.
“He’s a gun owner. And he simply has a different opinion than I do. However, I totally understand his point,” Mr. Heller said. “The [checks prevent] criminals from buying guns right off the shelf. It slows them down, so all they have to do is drop a dime, go to the trunk of a car, pay double the price, and they got a gun — what’s the point of all of our laws?”