By Jeff Rossen
Today marks the debut of Rossen Reports, a new unit led by national investigative correspondent Jeff Rossen. First out of the gate: A hidden camera investigation exposing how easy it is for anyone – even criminals – to buy dangerous weapons.
Some say it’s a major loophole in the law. At gun stores, you have to get a background check before you can buy a weapon. But online in most states, anyone from law-abiding citizens to dangerous criminals – even terrorists – can get just about any weapon they want, no questions asked. Our hidden camera investigation shows the deals going down in broad daylight, in suburban mall parking lots.
Hundreds of thousands of guns are for sale, on hundreds of websites. We responded and set up meetings at popular shopping malls. We bought everything from a police-grade pistol to a semiautomatic assault rifle. We did it over and over again, even hinting that our buyer is a criminal.
Within 12 hours, we bought eight dangerous guns – even a 50-caliber weapon so powerful it could take down a helicopter. Remember, at gun stores, background checks are required, but online – nothing. Believe it or not, in most states it’s completely legal.
NBC News hired Steve Barborini, a former supervisor for the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, to help with our investigation. Barborini said that the online sales loophole permits what he called “a weapons bazaar for criminals. There’s no background check: Anybody that has a murder conviction can simply log on, email someone, meet ’em in a parking lot, and buy a freaking AK-47.”
In fact, 34 people are murdered every day in gun violence, with many of the weapons traced back to private sales. Jitka Vesel, for example, was killed by a stalker – a Canadian man who crossed into the U.S., bought a gun online in Seattle, then shot her 11 times as she got in her car. No legitimate gun store would have sold this man a gun, because he’s not a U.S. citizen. He wouldn’t have passed a background check, yet he was easily able to buy a gun online.
To find out what kind of dangerous weapons we could buy, we went online and responded to gun ads in Phoenix, Ariz., one of the many states where such sales are legal. Within minutes we had meeting set up. Our gun buyers were two Arizona security experts we hired, posing as husband and wife.
We were watching from nearby vans as our buyers paid cash for a tactical assault rifle modified to use bullets for an AK-47, along with an easy-to-conceal pistol – no questions asked.
For our next meeting, we bought a Glock-23 with hollow-point bullets, made to inflict serious internal damage, even telling the seller point-blank that we probably couldn’t pass a background check. Another seller showed up with a tactical shotgun, an assault rifle and his 7-year-old son. Remember, our buyers could have been dangerous felons!
But the scariest transaction came after dark in a pharmacy parking lot. The online ad was for a 50-caliber sniper rifle, the most powerful gun legally sold in the U.S.: bullet range 5 miles. It can pierce armored vehicles, even bring down a helicopter. But the seller was so laid-back, you’d think he was hocking a used bicycle.
And it’s happening nationwide. In New York, Mayor Michael Bloomberg led another investigation, buying guns in 14 states, even after the buyers said they couldn’t pass a background check.
So what’s the government doing about it? It turns out there’s a bill that would close this loophole, and require background checks for all gun sales, even online. But that bill has been tied up in committee for nearly a year. Its sponsor, New York senator Chuck Schumer, told us: “The NRA is one of the most powerful lobbies in Washington, and despite the overwhelming evidence that we should do something … the odds of us being able to do something are not high.”
The NRA says it opposes the bill because it has “many serious flaws,” but wouldn’t comment about online gun sales. In the past the NRA has fought background checks for any private sales. But victims say: Until the law is changed, more innocent people will die.
Remember: This is legal, and lots of people in this country support private gun sales without background checks. They say it’s not about making money; it’s about individual rights. As for the eight guns we bought, we turned them over the the Phoenix police department… where they will be destroyed.