Is There A Gun Show Loophole?

One of the enduring controversies in Virginia involves the so-called “Gun Show Loophole”. I say so-called because the term “gun show loophole” generates intense debate and considerable emotion.

In fact, this article on the “gun show loophole” was inspired by a Bacon’s Rebellion reader who took exception to a comment I posted about the need to close the “gun show loophole”. As I’ve researched this matter it’s become obvious that there are honest people and honest opinions on both sides of this controversy.

What’s a gun show anyway? Fundamentally, a gun show is a temporary gathering of firearms enthusiasts. The shows are usually organized by promoters who lease space for the show and then sub-lease display / sale areas (often called tables) to vendors. Most vendors are firearms dealers although there are often people leasing tables and selling knives, jerky, etc. Old Dominion Gun Shows is planning a gun show in mid January in Dale City, VA. You can see their web site here.
Can you buy guns at a gun show? Yes. Everybody (on all sides of the issue) know and agree that guns are bought and sold at Virginia gun shows. The ATF estimates that there are 5,000 gun shows a year (across the nation) averaging 1,500 – 15,000 attendees per show. Shows vary in size with smaller shows having 50 tables and large shows having 2,000 tables. ATF estimates that 1,000 guns per show are sold at the big shows. As a point of reference, the Old Dominion Gun Show in Dale City will have 175, six foot tables available to lease for $50 each. I’ve never seen the statistic of total guns sold per year at gun shows but I imagine that a million could be possible. That’s a lot of guns.
Are gun sales at gun shows regulated? Yes, sort of….depends a lot on the state. People and companies engaged in the business of buying and selling guns must have a license from the federal government. These merchants must comply with federal law by completing a background check on a potential buyer using the National Instant Criminal Background Check System. However, that requirement only applies to licensed gun dealers. Private citizens who are not engaged “in the business of dealing” firearms who make only “occasional” sales within their home state are under no requirement to conduct background checks on purchasers. They are legally forbidden from selling to a person who they know is prohibited from buying a gun (such as an ex-felon) but they don’t have to verify anything.
Gun shows don’t kill people … people kill people. Maybe so but gun shows provide a convenient venue for illegal firearm sales. In fact, there is no doubt that some very questionable gun sales occur during gun shows. One chilling account comes from a young man repeatedly shot during the Virginia Tech massacre. Read his story here.
It’s always Virginia. Not in this case. While Virginia has very lax private gun sale regulations the Old Dominion is far from alone. Of the 50 states, only 17 have substantial gun show / private gun sale regulations. The other 33 (including Virginia) allow great latitude in the private sale or transfer of firearms – whether within a gun show or somewhere else.
The bottom line – I am a gun ownership advocate. I believe in the Second Amendment and the Supreme Court interpretation of that amendment in the Heller case. However, there is good reason to perform a background check prior to selling a gun. I support the adoption of Colorado’s regulatory approach. Guns sold at gun shows must be through a registered firearms dealer with a background check. Private sales outside of gun shows are allowed without a background check. I can live with private sales and I can live with firearms shows – just not at the same time.

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15 responses to “Is There A Gun Show Loophole?”

  1. Gooze Views Avatar
    Gooze Views

    For once I agree with you absolutely. And I am a gun owner — got a Savage 63, .22 cal. single shot when I was a kid. Haven't shot it since the early 1970s.

    Peter Galuszka

  2. Philip Williams Avatar
    Philip Williams

    Gun shows typically have BATFE agents on the prowl. An illegal sale is more likely to be foiled at a gun show than away from one.

    If it makes you feel any better, most of the gun sellers I see on web forums require a concealed weapon license and bill of sale for handgun sales. The state (Florida) doesn't require it, but most of the sellers do it anyway.

  3. A well armed society is a polite society.

  4. Mr. Williams:

    In 2000, the ATF published the "Follow the Gun" study. I realize that was 10 years ago. However, at that time, gun shows were perceived as a substantial source of illegal gun sales.

    More recently, Mayor Bloomberg sponsored a study of illegal guns. The report can be found at

    In fairness, there are studies which come to almost the polar opposite conclusion. For example,

    My opinion is that there is room for debate. So, I ask – how big an inconvenience vs. how big a potential problem.

    Given that, I think that mandating private sales at gun shows go through a background check is reasonable.

    The person or group arranging the gun show could be required to find a registered dealer willing to process background checks for private sales at a reasonable "transaction price".

    I understand that people have the right to bear arms. A majority of the Supreme Court agrees. However, both the Supreme Court and I believe that reasonable regulation is acceptable and allowable under the US Constitution.

  5. Accurate:

    I agree with you on the "well armed society is a polite society" point.

    However, I guess that both you and I would also agree that repeat offenders should not have easy access to guns.

  6. Anonymous Avatar

    While your observations are somewhat accurate, the ATF report shows about 1% of "crime" guns are purchased at gun shows. The other side of your article, is that nondealers cannot do background checks; only licensed FFLs can. Also if you close the "gun show loophole" by requiring the background checks, you close ALL private sales, unless that is the real intent, since private sales at gun shows are regulated generally by the private sales laws.

  7. Anon 8:35 –

    I am not so sure that stopping private sales in the vicinity of a gun show would stop private sales. My understanding of the Colorado law is that private sales are allowed (without a formal background check) but not in the vicinity of gun shows.

    So, if you and I are neighbors and I want to sell you my gun – fine. However, if you and I meet at a gun show, I can't sell you my gun there and then.

    Why is this important?

    Gun shows do provide a venue for people to buy guns illegally. While I certainly agree that the vast, vast majority of gun sales at gun shows are legitimate … there are some sales which are not.

    If I were a criminal (which I am not) looking to buy a gun illegally – I'd certainly check out gun shows.

    The state regulates the sale of beer. If you come to my house I can give you a beer or sell you a beer. This is as it should be. However, if you go to a high school football game I cannot open a "beer stand" and sell beer without a license and without verifying that you are of legal age and not intoxicated.

    Eliminating private sales in the vicinity of gun shows at the time of gun shows would be slight dilution of gun rights. However, it is only a slight dilution. A private seller could arrange to sell to a registered dealer who would do the background check and then sell to a private buyer for a small fee.

    Remember that states have pretty wide leeway in regulating gun shows / private sales. In New Jersey, no modern forearm may be exchanged at a gun show at all – not via private sale, not via registered dealer with a background check.

    It seems to me that this emotional issue is fertile ground for slight compromise. Gun shows are fine and private sales are fine. However, mixing the two seems to provide a potential bazaar for people looking to illegally purchase firearms.

    Also remember that gun shows scare a fairly large percentage of the general public. These are people who don't own guns and have never been to a gun show. However, they do vote. As a gun ownership advocate I believe that some small compromise might "keep the peace" between the gun ownership advocates and the gun ownership opponents.

    When thinking about Virginia, remember New Jersey.

    Heller was a broad ruling. However, it did not hold that the regulation of firearms was illegal or unconstitutional. It held that the excessive regulation of firearms was unconstitutional.

    How would the Supreme Court rule on the New Jersey gun show law? I don't know.

  8. Right on target.

  9. If I were a criminal, I would buy a gun from the arms dealer who hangs out in the dive down the street. Why would I make a special trip to a gun show when I can pick up a piece, some crack, and a little female companionship in one stop?

    Besides that urban myth is pretty old. The new one is Mexicans buying full auto combat weaponry at gun shows to use in Mexico drug battles. You guys need to get with the times.

  10. So in Colorado, according to the article, a private sale has to go through a dealer. Who pays the $30 or so transfer fee, which is basically a tax in this case? Dealers DO NOT do firearm transfers for free.

    I can support background checks for private sales but I want the check done for free. I do not want to have to pay a fee for the right to sell my property. Since the article mentions there usually BATFE agents at gun shows, why doesn't the BATFE set up a table and run background checks for free? If I want to see a firearm to someone privately, I should be able to go with that person to the BATFE table, get a "go" and then complete my sale privately. If there are questions later, I can point out that BATFE cleared the transaction.

  11. mikeb302000 Avatar

    Thanks for a wonderful post. I picked up on it for my blog today.

    I say we need background checks on all gun transfers. In order for that to be effective, we also need licensing of all gun owners and registration of all weapons.

    That would be costly and inconvenient, but not nearly as much as the gun violence we already live with, much of which would be eliminated.

  12. Considering the Justice Department only pursues about 1.25% of all known cases where a felon attempts to buy a gun, why are you itching to put more laws on the books that won't get used except to screw over somebody trying to be honest? I don't get it. Why is there always a zeal for new laws but no bother to reform the ATF or actually use the current laws we have?

  13. mikeb302000 Avatar

    Andy, I don't know why the Justice Department doesn't pursue 100% of those cases in which a disqualified person attempts to buy a gun legally. They must be the really stupid ones to think they can beat the system, and probably their next stop is the black market. Arresting them every time would be good, but that has nothing to do with what I propose. The fact that law enforcement is so lacking does not mean the laws on the books are adequate if only they'd enforce them.

    We need proper gun control, something we've never had in the States. And legitimate gun owners would be the first and biggest winners.

  14. Mikeb, you miss the point entirely. Why would you expect new laws to be enforced to the rigor necessary to see your world view become reality when the current laws are not enforced as they should be? All that ends up doing is putting more laws on the books that are onerous to the lawful and flouted by the criminals. That's hardly useful to our society.

    And regarding the new laws you want, can you provide some sort of evidence to prove your new proposals will work? What metrics can you provide to say that your new laws will be worth the hassle that comes with them? After all, this isn't the first time gun control laws have been put on the books with the promise of stemming the tide of some violence or crime, only to have more new laws proposed a few years later to fix the same problems. If you get your "gun-show loopholes" closed down, can you promise that you will have no need to ask for new gun control legislation ever again?

  15. Federal Firearms License Class 3 Avatar
    Federal Firearms License Class 3


    The law expanded the opportunities for private citizens to buy and sell firearms at gun shows by raising selling firearms for purposes of defining who must obtain a federal gun dealer's license. Thanks…

    Federal Firearms License Class 3

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