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Michael Sullivan finds his own gun loophole

Michael Sullivan is a former US attorney and one-time acting director of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives.
Michael Sullivan is a former US attorney and one-time acting director of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives.AP

Is Michael Sullivan, the former US attorney and one-time acting director of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives, really the open-minded, fact-based candidate he claims to be in his campaign for the US Senate?

Our story starts when Sullivan came to the Globe on April 11. One of our questions was on where Sullivan stood on closing the gun-show loophole by requiring background checks on all sales made at those events.

Currently only federally licensed dealers must do such checks. That means felons and others who couldn’t pass a background check can still buy guns from private sellers at gun shows and elsewhere. Indeed, New York City’s undercover investigation of gun shows has provided video documentation of gun-show merchants willing to sell firearms even after the purchaser tells them he probably wouldn’t pass a background check.


Gun shows have long been a concern of ATF, the agency Sullivan led from 2006 to 2009. So I was surprised to hear Sullivan say that “in my mind, there’s no such thing as a gun-show loophole” and that he didn’t think requiring background checks for all gun-show sales would accomplish much.

I noted that some years back, ATF had done a report saying gun shows were a considerable problem. Sullivan said he wasn’t aware of any such study. With the help of my BlackBerry, I read him a Web reference noting that an ATF study found that thousands of illegally trafficked guns had come from gun shows and that the agency considered gun shows and flea markets a major venue for illegal gun trafficking.

“I’ll have to take a look at it,” he replied.

But in a GOP debate the very next day, Sullivan declared he would oppose extending background checks to gun shows, contending, again, that “there’s no such thing as a gun-show loophole.”

This week, I called Sullivan to ask if he’d read the study. He said he hadn’t been able to find it, noting that the report isn’t on the ATF site. That’s true; the agency, which no longer does research of that sort, doesn’t consider those findings sufficiently current.


That said, one can get the study, which was released in June 2000 and based on investigations from mid-1996 through 1998, elsewhere on the Web. Its conclusions are instructive.

“Gun shows were a major trafficking channel, involving the second highest number of trafficked guns per investigation . . . and associated with approximately 26,000 illegally diverted firearms,” the study found.

“Felons were associated with selling or purchasing firearms in 46 percent of the gun show investigations,” it added.

And then there’s this eye-opener: “Firearms that were illegally diverted at or through gun shows were recovered in subsequent crimes, including homicide and robbery, in more than a third of the gun-show investigations.”

Now, requiring that private sellers at gun shows also do background checks is obviously not a cure-all. Still, it’s hard to see how any open-minded politician could peruse the ATF’s report and conclude that gun shows aren’t a problem.

But even after I read him the passages quoted here, Sullivan didn’t budge, dismissing the report as an old study.

“There are other studies out there saying it is not the problem,” he said, citing a Department of Justice survey of imprisoned felons in which only about 1 percent said they had gotten their guns at guns shows.

I was struck by two things. First, the fact that Sullivan hadn’t been familiar with the ATF’s research and second, his willingness to disregard it. For his part, Sullivan accused me of not liking him and of not giving him credit for the work he had done to get those adjudicated mentally ill into the background-check system.


Beyond finding him only lightly informed, I don’t have any real personal opinion of Sullivan. But I am interested in his political and policy decisions. As an attorney in private practice, he and his firm have had at least two major gun-industry clients, the National Shooting Sports Foundation (an industry trade association) and Smith & Wesson.

And for all his claims to be a fact-based decision-maker, when it comes to guns, it’s fair to conclude that he’s taken an ideological rather than an empirical position — one that’s led him to dismiss the important findings of the very agency he once ran.

Scot Lehigh can be reached at lehigh@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @GlobeScotLehigh.