Nightly News   |  February 21, 2013

Giant gun law loopholes stymie prosecutors

Because Congress has prohibited a national computerized database of gun sales, tracking the sale of firearms is a cumbersome process forcing investigators to rely on research methods from decades past. And if the sale occurred through a private seller – which is how 80 percent of those convicted of gun crimes get their weapons -- no documentation is required. NBC’s Michael Isikoff reports.

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>>> gun crimes, of course, have taken on a much higher profile in this country, since the shootings at the school in newtown, connecticut, which reignited the heated debate over gun control . tonight we unveil an nbc news exclusive, showing law enforcement officials say serious gaps in this country's gun laws make it hard for them to do their jobs. we get our report from our national investigative correspondent, michael isikoff .

>> reporter: fbi agents seized a video of this neo-nazi convention.

>> this is a war!

>> reporter: while investigating the owner of an ohio sporting goods store. the search turned up an arsenal in what authorities say was a possible racist plot.

>> the fbi averted a catastrophe in this case. there's no doubt about it.

>> reporter: the store owner, richard schmidt , a convicted felon , is charged with illegally stockpiling 18 firearms, including assault weapons , shotguns and pistols, body armor , high-capacity magazines and more than 40,000 rounds of ammunition.

>> and they were all over the place. he had one in his coat pocket.

>> reporter: schmidt had served 13 years for homicide in an ohio state prison. under federal law , he was barred from owning any firearms. he has pled not guilty to the new weapons charges and his lawyer declined to comment. nbc news has learned the fbi was also concerned that schmidt may have been drawing up a hit list, after finding notebooks showing the names and addresses of jewish and african-american leaders in detroit. agents briefed wendell anthony about the potential threat.

>> appears to me like this guy is a one-man army. very unsettling, very disturbing. and it really kind of made me angry.

>> reporter: the fbi also warned, scout kauffman, a jewish community leader.

>> names of tenants in our building, names of some of the people in leadership positions in our organization, including mine.

>> reporter: prosecutors are determined to find out where and how schmidt got his guns. but that's proving a difficult task, because of what they say are giant loopholes in the nation's gun laws . one big issue, congress has prohibited a national computeri computerized database of gun sales. so agents at the atf tracing center in west virginia are forced to use technology out of a 1940s , poring through cardboard boxes, water logged sales records, and even micro feesh. agents believe schmidt acquired his firearms at gun shows or private sellers, where under federal law , background checks are not required.

>> there's no documentation required for private transactions. so whatever occurs in that zone, is invisible to us.

>> reporter: an estimated 80% of those convicted of gun crimes get their weapons through private sales. more evidence of what some prosecutors say are alarming gaps in the nation's gun laws . michael isikoff , nbc news, bowling green , ohio.