The Problems with Bloomberg’s Undercover ‘Point, Click, Fire’ Investigation of Illegal Online Gun Sales (VIDEO)

The findings of New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s undercover investigation, Point, Click, Fire: An Investigation of Illegal Online Gun Sales, are startling at first glance.

According to the findings of the investigation:

•    62 percent of private gun sellers — 77 of 125 online sellers contacted — agreed to sell a firearm to a buyer who said he probably couldn’t pass a background check – a felony under federal law.
•    82 percent of sellers on Craigslist agreed to sell guns to people they believed to be prohibited purchasers – though the website prohibits online firearms sales.
•    Besides Craigslist, unlicensed sellers also offered arms at alarmingly high rates with no questions asked at Armslist, Gunlistings, Glocktalk and the classified section of Utah news website
•    Sellers in five Southern states — Tennessee, Kentucky, Louisiana, South Carolina and Virginia — were the worst offenders, followed closely by dealers in Arizona, New Mexico, Utah and Texas.
•    Midwest sellers have the best record, with 48 private sellers refusing to make illegal sales.

But if one were to drill down into the report itself it becomes apparent that the investigation has several shortcomings, inconsistencies, and problem areas.  That is it’s not as comprehensive and as detailed as it claims to be and, as a result, one would conclude that further investigation is needed before any of the report’s proposed solutions are seriously considered.

Before those aforementioned flaws are discussed, here is how the investigation was conducted:

Over a period of 18 days, a team of 15 investigators examined 125 private sellers from 14 states who advertised guns for sale on 10 different websites.  The team conducted an undercover probe to capture audio and video recordings of online gun sellers.

The probe hinged on the fact that if a seller has reason to believe that a buyer would not pass a background check, then the seller must not follow through with the sale of the firearm (see video).

So, now to look at those shortcomings, inconsistencies, and problem areas, briefly put, the investigation is flawed for the following reasons (a) the targeted criteria used to select sellers (b) the inconsistencies within the sample sizes (c) the questionable conclusions and recommendations the authors of the report make about online gun sales.

Cherry Picking Sellers

In looking at the report, the criteria used to select sellers for the investigation seems to have favored those sellers who have telltale signs of being unscrupulous.  Instead of randomly selecting sellers, it appears that investigators targeted those individuals who would be more inclined to break the law.

Here’s what the report states with respect to the criteria used:

Investigators chose which private sellers to investigate based on several factors, including whether the seller had a relatively high volume of unique gun-related posts, whether they were selling a make and model of gun commonly used in crimes and whether the seller included direct contact information in their listing.

There are some obvious red flags in looking at these factors, i.e. what exactly are “unique gun-related posts”?  Did the listing in someway imply that the seller was willing to sell to anyone?

The truth is that one can find almost anything on the Internet.  There are certain code words that criminals use to sell firearms, drugs, sex, etc. on the web.  It appears that investigators were sensitive to such signs and pursued sellers who used and/or exhibited those signs

However, this fact is not disclosed in their findings.  The way the info is worded is meant to imply a representation of the entire online gun community, “62 percent of online sellers agreed to sell guns to investigators posing as buyers who couldn’t pass a gun background check – a felony under federal law.”

There’s no qualifying remark to suggest that the sellers met certain criteria.

The investigation should have included a randomized selection of online sellers (a control group) to cross reference with its targeted sample.

Sample Size Inconsistencies

Even if one argues that the investigators did not specifically target sellers who exhibited some element of criminal intent, then one has to acknowledge that there are inconsistencies regarding the sample sized used for each website.

Here is a graph of the number of ‘integrity tests’ used on various websites:

website integrity test results chart

Now, here is a graph of the “Active Gun Listings By Website.”

active gun listings by website chart

The obvious question is regarding proportion.  Why aren’t the sample sizes used proportionate to the number of gun listings?

For example, Craigslist had 1,792 guns listed for sale with a total number of 17 ‘integrity tests,’ whereas had 2,713 guns listed for sale with a total number of 12 ‘integrity tests.”

Why did have fewer ‘integrity tests’ than Craigslist?  Shouldn’t the ‘integrity tests’ be proportionate to the number of gun listings?

Is this not a sign of statistical manipulation?

One would assume that an objective study would have a sample size proportionate to the number of listings to create statistical consistency, especially if the report is going to push percentages about a population and make broader conclusions like there is a “vast and largely unregulated market for illegal guns.”

gun stats chart by state

Questionable Conclusions And Recommendations

The report makes the following conclusions and recommendations:

• Federal law should require a background check for every gun sale. Legislation now pending in both chambers of Congress – The Fix Gun Checks Act of 2011 (S.436/ H.R.1781 (112th Congress)) – would enact this reform.

• The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms & Explosives (ATF) should improve enforcement of existing laws. ATF should conduct undercover investigations on a variety of websites, track whether guns recovered in crimes were originally sold online and offer online tutorials to train sellers and buyers on federal gun laws governing online sales.

• Websites should adopt tougher protocols to deter crime. Websites that permit gun sales should demand transparency from sellers and buyers, facilitate reporting of suspicious behavior by site users and swiftly remove prohibited listings.

However, within the same report it states that all of the aforementioned can be accomplished “without restraining the legal trade in firearms among law-abiding sellers and buyers.”

First off, that new law would complicate sales between law-abiding gun owners.  There’s no doubt about that.

Second, who really believes that the ATF should be conducting more sting operations?

And lastly, law-abiding gun owners have no problem rooting out unscrupulous sellers.  But the first step to doing this is by looking at the issue objectively, not through the fractured lens of a flawed report.

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