Editor’s Note: In this week’s American Morning original series “The Gun Trail,” we are taking a look at how legal guns could get into the wrong hands. Today, our Ed Lavandera is on the front line – a state at the start of the so-called iron pipeline – a pipeline that could end in your streets. Tomorrow, we go from the front line to the end of the line – the city streets. Are laws at the local level making it harder for the criminals or the legal and responsible gun owners?
[cnn-photo-caption image= http://i2.cdn.turner.com/cnn/2010/images/02/16/lavandera.gun.shop.cnn.art.jpg caption="CNN's Ed Lavandera looks at both sides of the "lost or stolen" weapons law in the fight against gun trafficking."]
By Ed Lavandera, CNN
Kayton Smith says you'd be surprised the stories gun buyers reveal.
"What made you decide to buy a firearm?" he asks a potential customer.
"Do you want to know the truth?" the customer asks.
You are about to hear the kind of story that puts Kayton Smith on edge.
"I left New York owing someone a lot of money and eventually they’re going to find me. Better safe than sorry," the customer tells Smith.
The buyer is a legal Russian immigrant. After calling the FBI's instant background check system, the sale is put on hold while the Feds look deeper into his background.
Smith and Ricky Duffy run The Gun Shop in Savannah, Georgia. We spent a day with them, watching dozens of customers come through The Gun Shop.
According to federal statistics, Georgia is the number one state for exported guns used in crimes across the country. Gun safety advocates say that has created what is known as "the iron pipeline" of illegal guns flowing north, from places like Savannah, Georgia into northeastern states with stricter gun laws.
These states pumped almost 5,000 guns into this criminal pipeline in 2008.
"There's a pattern we've seen emerging where traffickers tend to buy guns in states with weak gun laws, where it's easy for them and bring them back to states like Massachusetts that have tougher gun laws and resell these illegal guns on the street for a nice profit," says Nancy Robinson of Citizens for Safety.
The first step, customers fill out a form declaring they're buying the gun, not someone else. Then Smith calls for an instant background check. The buyer is either approved, delayed or denied.
That puts Smith and Duffy's gun shop on the front lines in the battle against "straw purchasers" – people who pretend to buy guns for themselves then pass them on to someone who can't lawfully own a firearm.
Smith estimates the shop has sold about 4,000 guns in the last three years. In that same time, FBI background checks have denied sales to 83 people at his shop.
"We don't want to do anything wrong. We want the bad guys to get caught. We don't want to sell any guns to bad guys ever," says Duffy.
Critics say there are a small percentage of gun dealers who operate underground, like at gun shows where it is easy to buy firearms without a background check.
"A crooked gun dealer can funnel more guns into the hands of criminals than any other single source," says Robinson.
I asked Kayton Smith if he felt gun show owners get a bad rap.
"That's what they're expecting gun dealers to do, mind reading. We can't do that. But we do have some tools and try to prevent as much as possible."
That brings us back to the Russian immigrant whose gun purchase was delayed by the FBI. A few days later, the handgun sale was approved. That's enough for Ricky Duffy. He feels good the gun is in good hands.
I asked him if he thinks there are enough laws on the books to battle straw purchases.
"By God, yes," he says. "You don't want to do a straw purchase. The Feds will get you!"