The Gun Show Myth

Posted on November 7, 2008

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Gun shows are large, public events that for many decades have been held in convention centers and banquet halls, attended by gun enthusiasts, hunters, target shooters, law enforcement and military personnel, and their families. Under federal law, firearm dealers—persons engaged in the business of selling firearms for profit on a regular basis—are required to conduct background checks on anyone to whom they sell any firearm, regardless of where the sale takes place. Federal law also provides that a person who is not a dealer may sell a firearm from his personal collection without conducting a check.

Though Congress specifically has applied the background check requirement to dealers only, and specifically exempted from the dealer licensing requirement persons who occasionally sell guns from their personal collections, gun prohibition activists call this a “loophole.” Gun prohibitionists also falsely claim that many criminals get guns from gun shows; the most recent federal study puts the figure at only 0.7 percent.

After many months of claiming they wanted a bill that required sales of guns at gun shows, by non-dealers, to be subject to the background check requirement, anti-gun members of Congress voted against such a bill, because it did not contain other provisions designed to put gun shows out of business. Some of the most relevant facts in the debate over gun show legislation include:

The Myth of “Unlicensed Dealers”

• Under current federal law, it is illegal to “engage in the business” of “dealing in firearms” without a license from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives.1 “Engaged in the business” means buying and selling firearms as a regular business with the objective of profit.2 Violations carry a five year prison sentence and a $250,000 fine.3

• A licensed dealer may do business temporarily at a gun show, just as he could at his permanent licensed premises. Every legal requirement applies equally at both types of location, including background checks and record keeping on all transactions.

• People who “engage in the business” without a license can be arrested and convicted of a federal felony—whether they “engage in business” at a gun show, or out of a home, office, or vehicle.

Gun Shows Are Not a Source of “Crime Guns”

• A 2006 FBI study of criminals who attacked law enforcement officers found that within their sample, “None of the [attackers’] rifles, shotguns, or handguns … were obtained from gun shows or related activities.” Ninety-seven percent of guns in the study were obtained illegally, and the assailants interviewed had nothing but contempt for gun laws. As one offender put it, “[T]he 8,000 new gun laws would have made absolutely [no difference], whatsoever, about me getting a gun. … I never went into a gun store or to a gun show or to a pawn shop or anyplace else where firearms are legally bought and sold.”4

• A Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS) report on “Firearms Use by Offenders” found that fewer than 1% of U.S. “crime guns” came from gun shows, with repeat offenders even less likely than first-timers to buy guns from any retail source. This 2001 study was based on interviews with 18,000 state prison inmates and is the largest such study ever conducted by the government.5

• Previous federal studies have found few criminals using gun shows. A 2000 BJS study, “Federal Firearms Offenders, 1992-98,” found only 1.7% of federal prison inmates obtained their gun from a gun show.6 Similarly, a 1997 National Institute of Justice study reported less than 2% of criminals’ guns come from gun shows.7

Gun Shows and Terrorism

Anti-gun organizations have tried to claim that terrorists buy guns at gun shows. Yet the cases they point to don’t prove their point.

• One suspect followed to gun shows was later found “unloading shipments of automatic weapons, explosives, grenades and rocket launchers” in Beirut. These arms, of course, are not available at U.S. gun shows.

• Another gun buyer “was arrested in an investigation of the September 11 attacks.” But the probe never linked him to the attacks, and there was no indication that he ever shipped guns overseas.

• Another case involved an Irish man convicted for using a “straw buyer” at a Florida show to purchase guns from a licensed dealer, for shipment back to Ireland. But in this case, the system worked—the smuggler was convicted and sentenced to four years in prison.

• A glance at any TV or newspaper coverage of the Middle East shows that terrorists have no shortage of access to firearms, and far more powerful weapons, without resorting to highly regulated markets in the United States.

Gun Show Legislation Overreaches

Many legislators have proposed to restrict gun show sales, but their proposals would simply create a bureaucratic nightmare—shutting down the shows while leaving criminal markets untouched. Among other problems, various gun show bills (such as H.R. 96 in the 110th Congress) would:

• Create gun owner registration. “Special firearms event operators” would have to submit names of all “vendors” to the U.S. Justice Department both before and after the show—whether or not any of the vendors sold a gun. A private citizen who enters a gun show hoping to sell or trade a firearm, but who does not find a buyer and leaves with his own gun, would be on file with the Justice Department forever as a “special firearms event vendor.”

• Require registration of gun shows. This bureaucratic requirement would allow an anti-gun administration to harass event organizers for paperwork violations. It would also allow government agents to harass gun owners who gather for purposes other than selling guns.

• Allow harassment of show organizers and vendors. H.R. 96, for instance, allows inspection, at a gun show, of a show promoter’s or dealer’s entire business records—including records of transactions that occurred at other shows or at a dealer’s licensed place of business. These inspections are time consuming for licensees and highly intrusive; conducting business at a gun show while simultaneously undergoing a compliance inspection would be impossible.

• Turn casual conversations into “gun show sales.” A person could still agree to sell a gun to a neighbor in a conversation over the backyard fence; but if the same conversation took place at a gun show, the background check requirement would forever apply to that gun. This unworkable and unenforceable system would even apply to a gun that a seller and buyer talk about at a gun show, but don’t have with them.

• Fail to provide for true instant checks. The biggest controversy during the 1999 debate on gun show legislation was how long a “delay period” should be allowed for investigation of a questionable background check. The Lautenberg amendment allowed three business days—the same as current law for dealers at their regular places of business. That delay would, of course, be impractical for a weekend gun show.

1. 18 U.S.C. § 922(a)(1)(A).
2. 18 U.S.C. § 921(a)(21)(C). The term does not include occasional sales by hobbyists or collectors.
3. 18 U.S.C. § 924(a)(1).
4. Anthony J. Pinizzotto, et al., Violent Encounters: A Study of Felonious Assaults on Our Nation’s Law Enforcement Officers 53 (Aug. 2006).
5. Caroline Wolf Harlow, Firearm Use by Offenders 6 (Bureau of Justice Statistics, Nov. 2001).
6. John Scalia, Federal Firearm Offenders, 1992-98 10 (Bureau of Justice Statistics, June 2000).
7. Pamela K. Lattimore, et al., Homicide in Eight U.S. Cities: Trends, Context and Policy Implications 99 (Dec. 1997).

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