Bloomberg's Smackdown in Gotham

Cam Edwards
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Posted: Feb 09, 2007 12:00 AM
Bloomberg's Smackdown in Gotham

New York Mayor Mike Bloomberg’s war on gun owners received a major hit yesterday, courtesy of the U.S. Justice Department, but Bloomberg is so far refusing to back down. A letter by Michael Battle, director of the executive office for United States Attorneys at the Department of Justice, has been made public and it paints a blistering attack on Bloomberg’s actions over the past several months.

Back in May of 2006, Bloomberg announced he was suing 15 out-of-state gun dealers for allegedly conducting “straw purchases”, or illegally selling a firearm to one person knowing that’s actually going to be used by someone else. At the time Bloomberg announced his lawsuits, he’d already refused requests by the firearms industry to work alongside one another to stop straw purchases.

Instead, Bloomberg sent civilian private investigators into gun stores across the country, and had the investigators pose as straw purchasers. Bloomberg never informed the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives about the sting operations, and when the stings were announced, several law enforcement officials said as many as eighteen active law enforcement investigations were put in jeopardy.

For months the ATF was silent on the matter, but recently disclosed that an investigation into Bloomberg’s actions was taking place. Now the Battle letter, first made public by the New York Daily News, details the problems with Bloomberg’s attacks on firearms dealers.

According to the Daily News, none of the gun dealers Bloomberg is suing broke federal law and took part in straw purchase transactions. The letter also took Bloomberg to task for conducting these stings "without proper law enforcement authority," though there is no indication that BATFE or the Justice Department would seek to file charges against Bloomberg or his civilian private investigators. Instead, the letter warns that Bloomberg’s operations could put the city at risk of legal action.

Reaction from the firearms community was generally positive. The National Rifle Association’s Chief Lobbyist, Chris Cox said, “It’s a stern and appropriate warning to Bloomberg and his administration and his cronies that they’re doing something that’s probably illegal and certainly outside of their realm of their responsibility.”

Lawrence Keane, Vice President and General Counsel of the National Shooting Sports Foundation remarked, “They [Justice Department] are suggesting pretty clearly, I think, that the city had in fact engaged in illegal straw purchases by having these private investigators purchase guns on behalf of the City of New York and misrepresented to the firearms dealers that they were the ‘actual buyer’ when they filled out the 4473 [a federal firearms purchase form].”

Blogger Dave Hardy from Of Arms and the Law said, however, “I'd assume that Bloomberg and company (1) figured it was worth it for the publicity and (2) figured that the laws don't apply to the rich and powerful. They may just have been right on both.”

Bloomberg seems defiant, at least for now. Deputy Mayor Ed Skyler says the civil suits will continue, and he refused to say whether Bloomberg would stop the private investigations. But the suits against the gun dealers would seem to be crippled now that the Department of Justice says it investigated and didn’t find a crime had been committed. On the other side, at least one of the stores sued by Bloomberg has counter-sued the mayor, alleging Bloomberg had conspired with others to deceive the store in order to falsely and fraudulently purchase a firearm. Former Congressman Bob Barr is representing Smyrna, Georgia-based Adventure Outdoors, and he says the news is “very problematic” for the mayor, and presumably very good news for his client. The Georgia retailer is seeking $400 million in compensatory damages in the libel and slander suit.

As for the “sting” operations, NRA’s Chris Cox says, “This is a blatant attempt to take on federal law enforcement duties from a mayor that has nothing to do with federal law enforcement… We’re hoping if it happens again that the mayor and his administration will be prosecuted to the fullest extend of the law.”

In addition to the civil suits, it will be interesting to see how this affects Bloomberg’s anti-gun coalition of mayors. Already two mayors have recently dropped out of the group, alleging that they weren’t told that the group’s agenda included policies and plans that would affect legal gun owners. Now that the Justice Department has indicated Bloomberg’s actions could “interrupt or jeopardize” legitimate police investigations, will mayors stand with Bloomberg or with gun owners and law enforcement officers around the country?