The Truth About Gun Shows
by David Kopel
"Close the gun show loophole" demands Handgun Control, Inc. The major obstacle to Congress complying with HCI's wishes appears to be the desire of many Democrats to preserve gun shows as a campaign issue in the 2000 election. But if the voters learn the facts about gun shows, they will discover that there is no gun show loophole, no gun show crime problem, and no reason to adopt federal legislation whose main impact would be to infringe First and Second Amendment rights.
Despite what some media commentators have claimed, existing gun laws apply just as much to gun shows as they do to any other place where guns are sold. Ever since 1968, persons engaged in the business of selling firearms have been required to obtain a federal firearms license. If a dealer sells a gun from a storefront, from a room in his home, or from a table at a gun show, the rules are exactly the same: he must call the FBI and get authorization for the sale, after the FBI runs its "instant" background check (which often takes days to complete). As a result, firearms are the most severely regulated consumer product in the U.S.-the only product for which FBI permission is required for every single sale.
Conversely, people who are not engaged in the business, but who sell firearms from time to time (like a man who sells a spare hunting rifle to his brother in-law), are not required to obtain the federal license for gun dealers, or to call the FBI before completing the sale.
Similarly, if a gun collector dies and his widow wants to sell the guns, she does not need a federal firearms license because since she is just selling off inherited property and is not "engaged in the business." And if the widow doesn't want to sell her deceased husband's guns by taking out a classified ad in the newspaper, it is lawful for her to rent a table a gun show, and sell the entire collection in a weekend or two.
If you walk the aisles at any gun show, you will find that the overwhelming majority of guns offered for sale are from licensed federal dealers. Guns sold by private individuals (such as gun collectors getting rid of a gun or two over the course of the weekend) are the distinct minority.
Yet HCI claims that "25-50 percent of the vendors at most gun shows are unlicensed dealers." This statistic is true only if one counts vendors whoaren't selling guns (e.g., vendors who are selling books, clothing, or accessories) as "unlicensed dealers."
Denver Congresswoman Diana DeGette says that 70% of crime guns come from gun shows. The true figure is rather different, according to the National Institute of Justice (NIJ), the research arm of the U.S. Department ofJustice. According to an NIJ study released in December 1997 ("Homicide in Eight U.S. Cities," a report which covers much more than homicide), only 2% of criminal guns came from gun shows.
This result is consistent with a mid-1980s study for the NIJ, investigating the gun purchase and use habits of convicted felons in 12 state prisons. The study (later published as the book Armed and Considered Dangerous) found that gun shows were such a minor part of criminal gun acquisition that they were not even worth reporting as a separate figure.
At the most recent meeting of the American Society of Criminology, a study of youthful offenders in Michigan found that only 3% had acquired their last handgun via a gun show. (Of course some criminal gun acquisition at gun shows is perpetrated by "straw purchasers" who are legal gun buyers who are acting as surrogates for the criminal who wants the gun. Straw purchases have been federal felonies since 1968.)
And according to a report by the educational arm of HCI, the group's own survey of major-city police chiefs found only 2 out of 48 who said that guns from gun shows (both "legal and illegal sales" according to the questionnaire) were an important problem in their city.
Although the horrible murders at Columbine High School have energized anti-gun activists, no proposed federal law would have made any difference.
The adults who supplied the Columbine murder weapons (Robin Anderson and Mark Manes) were legal purchasers.
Since gun shows take place entirely within the boundaries of a single state, Congress has no legitimate constitutional basis, under its "interstate commerce" power, to attempt to control gun shows.
Nevertheless, both houses of Congress have passed gun show legislation. The House bill does only what the gun control advocates claim to want: imposing federal background checks on personal sales at gun shows.
The Senate version-passed 51-50 thanks to Vice-President Gore-goes much further, and sets the stage for gun shows to be destroyed. The Senate bill gives the Secretary of the Treasury nearly unlimited power to regulate gun show sales.
In the past, Treasury has abused its administrative authority over firearms to ban certain guns, so similar treatment for gun shows can be expected. For example, the Treasury banned the import of various rifles which were popular with competitive target shooters. Although a federal statute specifically orders Treasury to allow the import of "sporting" firearms, Treasury claimed that only firearms which were recommended by hunting guides were "sporting."
The Senate version also imposes a tax on gun show promoters, and allows the Secretary of the Treasury unlimited power in setting the tax level. One can bet that in this case, the power to tax really will be the power to destroy.
Gun shows are huge gathering points for people who are interested in Second Amendment issues. Gun rights groups frequently set up booths at gun shows to distribute literature and to recruit members. Gun shows are places where Americans properly exercise their First and Second Amendment rights, and neither gun show patrons nor vendors deserve the mean-spirited campaign of abuse to which they have been subjected.
Dave Kopel is Research Director at the Independence Institute, a civil liberties think tank in Golden, CO
copyright 2003 by the author, all rights reserved.