Gun Shows: An American Tradition

Posted on January 21, 2004

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Gun Shows, a piece of Americana. Like boat shows, car shows and art shows, gun shows are large events open to the public. Held in convention centers and similar facilities, they attract a broad range of people with an interest in guns, including collectors, hunters, target shooters, police officers and military personnel. Exhibitors include gun dealers (all federally licensed), gun collectors, hunting guides, target shooting clubs, and vendors of books, clothing, hunting accessories, targets, gun parts and the like.

Gun Shows & the First Amendment. Gun shows are an important venue for those interested in the political issues surrounding gun ownership. Attendees meet and share information in order to work together to protect rights guaranteed by the U.S. Constitution and the constitutions of 44 states. As such, gun shows are an important part of the political process, an important part of political speech protected by the First Amendment.

Gun Shows and Federal Law. Federal gun laws apply equally everywhere; there are no special exemptions for gun shows. Under the Gun Control Act (1968), anyone who "engages in the business" of selling firearms must be licensed, regardless of where he does business. There is no such thing as an "unlicensed dealer," and dealing in guns without a license is a federal felony, punishable by up to five years in prison and a $5,000 fine. In the Firearms Owners Protection Act (1986), Congress specifically authorized licensed firearms dealers to conduct business at gun shows.

Many Federal laws place obstacles to criminals getting guns. Under Federal law (and many state laws), felons, illegal aliens, fugitives, drug addicts and several other classes of "prohibited persons" are barred from possessing guns or ammunition. It is also illegal to buy a gun for a prohibited person (called a "straw purchase") or provide a gun to a prohibited person by any other means. These are felony offenses punishable by 10 years in prison and a fine of $10,000.

Gun Shows and the National Instant Check System. Congress has provided tens of millions of dollars to upgrade state criminal history records for entry into the National Instant Check System (NICS), which is used to screen retail gun purchasers. Federal law requires dealers to always screen gun customers through NICS. They must do so at gun shows, just as they would anywhere else.

Congress has specifically addressed gun sales by people who are not dealers. Under Federal law, a person who is not a dealer may sell a gun to another non-dealer for the purpose of "improving or liquidating a personal firearms collection." This is true wherever the sale occurs, and only a tiny percentage of such sales occur at shows. As noted, however, to "engage in the business" of dealing in firearms requires a federal license.

Few criminals get guns at gun shows. The most recent Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS) survey of imprisoned felons found that less than 1% obtained guns from gun shows. (Firearms Use by Offenders, Nov. 2001). The previous BJS survey found that only 1.7% of federal prison inmates got their guns from gun shows. (Federal Firearms Offenders, 1992-98, June 2000) An earlier National Institutes of Justice study found that less than 2% obtained guns from shows. (Homicide in Eight U.S. Cities, Dec. 1997) According to these reports, most criminals get guns from theft or burglary, the black market, or friends and family members.

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