By Bruce Parker / February 3, 2016
Everytown for Gun Safety survived a probe by the Vermont attorney general’s office, but the Bloomberg-backed group faces an ongoing legal threat from a gun dealer wrongly maligned by its deceptive sting operation.
After months of investigating bogus online gun offers to Vermonters, the state’s top law enforcement office closed its investigation into Everytown for Gun Safety in December with a warning to the group’s attorney:
“The vast majority of Vermont’s gun owners are law abiding sportspeople and individuals who appreciate firearms. When they legally shop for firearms, they should not be subject to background checks by those that have no interest in selling a firearm. We take the privacy of Vermonters very seriously.”
The rebuke, issued in a Dec. 11 letter from Assistant Attorney General Ryan Kriger to Ellen T. Berge, a partner in the Washington, D.C., office of Venable LLP, referred to a 2014 sting which Everytown for Gun Safety placed decoy gun ads online to entrap consumers not legally permitted to make the purchases.
Everytown published the results of the sting in “Hiding in Plain Sight,” a report that claimed online gun sellers in Vermont have a 1-in-24 chance of selling a gun to a criminal. The objective of the sting was to validate the group’s belief that felons, domestic abusers and other criminals routinely escape federal background checks by purchasing firearms online.
Despite the group’s underhanded tactics, Kriger told Vermont Watchdog on Tuesday his office “did not think there was a cognizable violation of the law to be pursued.”
“The Consumer Protection Act prohibits unfair and deceptive practices in commerce. For one thing, commerce requires that there be an actual exchange of money. That was not the situation here,” Kriger said.
While Everytown may not have violated the Consumer Protection Act, its report wrongly portrayed a Mount Holly, Vermont, gun dealer as a business whose gun sales bypass FBI criminal background checks. The slip-up could come back to haunt the New York-based group, which spends millions of dollars annually to pass gun-control laws in states.
“As a licensed dealer, we run a background check on every firearm sale, and it’s been that way since we’ve been in business,” said Bobby Richards, owner of Crossfire Arms.
“In point of fact, we don’t actually sell anything online. The only thing that we use the online medium for is to advertise. There’s no actual sales transactions completed online, and I don’t know of any online dealers who do that.”
Everytown’s researchers opened a can of worms by misrepresenting Crossfire. The gun dealer’s logo and merchandise were misappropriated and shown in the original report, but later were removed with a retraction published in a subsequent version:
A previous version of this report incorrectly stated that we identified 1,106 ads posted by unlicensed Vermont sellers offering firearms for sale. We inadvertently included 48 ads posted by licensed dealers in Vermont in this total.
The retraction is not likely to get Everytown out of legal jeopardy. In January 2015, Crossfire retained Torrington, Connecticut, attorney Rachel Baird to pursue defamation claims against the group for releasing a “blatantly false and malicious report distributed to a worldwide audience,” a media release from the company stated.
Watchdog contacted Richards in January to get an update on the case.
“We’re basically still in the middle of things, so I can’t comment,” Richards told Vermont Watchdog, adding that his lawyer advised him not to speak about the case. Attempts to contact Baird for an update on Tuesday were not returned.
Richards was willing, however, to explain how his business, and others like it, sell guns safely and legally.
Instead of operating a traditional storefront and showroom, Crossfire attracts customers through web ads and word-of-mouth. When gun buyers inquire about the availability of makes and models, Richards checks with suppliers and provides price quotes. To complete a transaction, customers arrive in person at Richards’ business address, fill out Alcohol Tobacco and Firearms Form 4473 and undergo an instant criminal background check.
“If you’re operating within the law, people have to go through a background check, and it’s typically face to face,” he said.
Richards said sales to out-of-state customers follow a similarly regulated process.
“I can’t send a gun through the mail willy-nilly to an individual. I have to send it to another licensed dealer, and that dealer — if it’s out of state for example — would need to conduct a background check on the individual before they take possession of that firearm.”
Despite a new gun control push by President Obama, and by lawmakers at the Vermont Statehouse, Richards said business is booming.
“Our business has been absolutely just slammed,” he said.
According to the most recent FBI data, background checks in Vermont spiked in January compared to a year ago. The bureau conducted 3,451 checks on Vermont purchases last month, up from 2,373 checks a year ago.
Like Richards, Kriger wouldn’t talk about Everytown for Gun Safety, due to “statutory confidentiality.” However, he said some of the materials Everytown submitted to his office might be accessible through a public records request, so long as they don’t qualify as work-product material or fall under attorney client privilege.
He added that Everytown’s researchers hadn’t invaded anyone’s privacy because they researched criminal records widely available to the public.
“I understand the concern about what happened there — it was certainly a concern to us. … (But) if someone just is looking at public records that are readily available, there is nothing you can do to stop someone from doing that.”
Contact Bruce Parker at firstname.lastname@example.org