Convicted Felons Getting Guns -- No Questions Asked

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COLUMBIA - Imagine a convicted felon getting a gun at the drop of a hat-no questions asked. Because of a hole in state and federal law, this scary thought may not be too far-fetched.

Ralph Gates got his first gun for his eighth Christmas in 1952. Since then, he has built up a large collection of guns, earning his home the nickname "Fort Ralph."

"If you can count ‘em, you don't have enough," Gates joked when asked how many guns he owns.

Gates bought most of his guns from major distributors, but said he has also purchased and sold guns amongst friends and family. While Gates said he is very careful to whom he sells guns, a lack of regulation for private sales means one of his guns could end up in the hands of a dangerous criminal.

Because guns are only registered to the buyer who purchases the firearm from a major distributor, once the gun is sold privately, the gun can no longer be traced. If the firearm is used in a crime, the state and federal agencies will only be able to track the gun back to the licensed dealer-- creating some problems for the original buyer.

"If I sold that gun to you for example and you used it in a commission of a crime and it was recovered, that gun could be traced back to me," Gates said.

In an effort to avoid this from happening, every major distributor like Target Masters or Bass Pro Shops has strict procedures for gun sales. Buyers must fill out a 4473 form. This form includes basic information such as name, date of birth, and height. There are also several questions on the 4473 form regarding criminal background.

A buyer must also pass a national instant criminal background check system, or NICS, with the FBI. Within minutes, the distributor will know if the individual passes, is delayed or failed.

If the buyer is delayed, the FBI has three business days to further investigate the individual. A delay can be simply questions because the individual has a common name such as "John Smith."  If there is no response to the seller within those three business days, the distributor can choose to sell or refuse the buyer or purchase the gun.

An individual will automatically fail the background check and be unable to purchase the gun if he or she has been convicted of a felony. While this varies from state to state, the only way to be in possession of a gun in Missouri after being convicted of a felony is to be pardoned by the governor.

In other states such as Kansas, after a certain period of time, often 10-15 years depending on the severity of the crime, the record is expunged and the individual may purchase a gun.

But not all gun sales are this strictly regulated-or even regulated at all. With individual-to-individual sales, there is no background check or record of the purchase required.

"If they have the cash boom, the transaction took place. And there really was no paper trail," Detective Tom O'Sullivan of the Boone County Sheriff's Department said.

But Trista Frederick with the Kansas City ATF, or Bureau of Alcohol, Firearms and Tobacco, said the agency is limited in what it can regulate.

"It's not a provision given to us by Congress. We are only allowed to enforce the laws and regulations that Congress authorizes us to do," Frederick said.

Instead, Congress allows the Kansas City Field Division-- which covers a four-state territory including Missouri, Kansas, Iowa and Nebraska - to investigative suspicious individuals who have already obtained or used guns illegally.

ATF also makes frequent visits across the states to make sure distributors and manufacturers are following the law.

Target Masters manager Barry McKenzie said ATF makes frequent visits to his Columbia business.

"There's not a week goes by that we don't get a call from the ATF tracing center tracing a gun that was involved in--it might have been stolen. It might have been involved in a crime," McKenzie said.

These frequent calls could partially be because since 2003, the Kansas City ATF Bureau has led the country in firearm investigations. In the year 2011 alone, the Kansas City ATF Bureau conducted 1,722 criminal investigations for illegal possession and firearm trafficking.

Because there is no regulation of private gun sales, the state can't even track the number of guns sold individually, making it impossible to know how many crimes were committed with these guns.

"Criminals will always be able to lay their hands on guns. "They'll steal 'em, break into houses. They'll always get guns. That's a situation that's never gonna go away," O'Sullivan said.

Frederick said because there is no regulation in private sales, she urges those who buy or sell guns without going through a distributor to be extremely careful. If an individual looks suspicious, a seller may also request the buyer get a background check.