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Gun Shows

The Purported Gun Show Loophole and State-by-State Regulation of Gun Shows

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Gun Enthusiasts Gather For The 21st Defense & Sporting Arms Show
Dondi Tawatao/Stringer/Getty Images News/Getty Images

As much a part of American tradition as baseball and apple pie, gun shows provide firearms retailers an opportunity to broaden their business while providing gun owners opportunities to make purchases at discounted prices.

Gun shows also serve another purpose: they allow private gun owners wishing to sell or trade a firearm access to large numbers of potential buyers and traders. In most states, those gun transfers are not regulated by law, a move that is praised by gun rights defenders and decried by gun control advocates who say the “loophole” allows persons who would not be able to pass a background check to illegally obtain firearms.

Gun Show Background

The federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives has estimated that 5,000 gun shows are held annually in the United States, attracting tens of thousands of attendees and resulting in the transfer of thousands of firearms.

Between 1968 and 1986, gun dealers were prohibited from selling firearms at gun shows. The restrictive Gun Control Act of 1968 prevented Federal Firearms License (FFL) holders from gun show sales by ordering all sales to take place at the dealer’s place of business. However, the Firearm Owners Protection Act of 1986 reversed that portion of the Gun Control Act. Today, BATFE estimates place the percentage of weapons sold at gun shows by licensed dealers between 50% and 75%.

Gun Show Loophole

In 33 states, private gun owners are not restricted from selling guns at gun shows. Buyers who purchase guns from individuals are not required to submit to the federal background checks in place for licensed dealers. Critics say that firearms can be obtained illegally as a result, calling it the “gun show loophole.” Proponents of unregulated gun show sales say that there is no loophole; gun owners are simply selling or trading guns at the shows as they would do at their residence.

Federal legislation has attempted to put an end to the so-called loophole by requiring all gun show transactions to take place through FFL dealers. Most recently, a 2009 bill attracted several co-sponsors in both the U.S. House of Representatives and the U.S. Senate. However, Congress ultimately failed to take up consideration of the legislation.

Gun Shows by State

A total of 11 states require background checks for at least some gun purchases at gun shows. Seven of those states require background checks for all gun purchases, while four states require background checks for only handgun purchases.

The seven states requiring background checks for all purchases include:

  • California
  • Colorado
  • Connecticut
  • Illinois
  • New York
  • Oregon
  • Rhode Island

The four states requiring background checks for only handgun purchases include:

  • Hawaii
  • Maryland
  • New Jersey
  • Pennsylvania

In Florida, private firearms purchases are subject to background checks in some jurisdictions but not across the entire state. There are no laws regulating private firearms sales at gun shows in the remaining 33 states.

The Bloomberg Investigation

In 2009, New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, founder of the Mayors Against Illegal Guns group, stirred controversy and stimulated the gun show debate when NYC hired private investigators to target gun shows in Ohio, Nevada and Tennessee.

According to a report released by Bloomberg’s office, 22 of 33 private sellers sold guns to undercover investigators who informed them that they probably could not pass a background check, while 16 of 17 licensed sellers allowed straw purchases by the undercover investigators, a process through which a person prohibited from purchasing a firearm recruits someone to purchase the gun for them.

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