The Facts about
by David B. Kopel
"Close the gun show
loophole," demands Handgun Control, Inc. The major obstacle to Congress's
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 effect would be to infringe on 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. Since 1938, persons 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 can get authorization from the FBI for
the sale only 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 United States -- the only product for which
FBI permission is required for every single sale.
Conversely, people who are not
engaged in the business of selling firearms, but who sell firearms from time to
time (such as a man who sells a hunting rifle to his brother-in-law), are not
required to obtain the federal license required of 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 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 at a gun show and sell the entire collection.
If you walk along the aisles at
any gun show, you will find that the overwhelming majority of guns offered for
sale are from federally licensed dealers. Guns sold by private individuals (such
as gun collectors getting rid of a gun or two over the the weekend) are the
Yet HCI claims that "25-50
percent of the vendors at most gun shows are unlicensed dealers." That
statistic is true only if one counts vendors who aren't selling guns (e.g.,
vendors who are selling books, clothing or accessories) as "unlicensed
Denver congresswoman Diana DeGette
says that 70 percent of guns used in crimes come from gun shows. The true figure
is rather different, according to the National Institute of Justice, the
research arm of the U.S. Department of Justice. According to an NIJ study
released in December 1997 ("Homicide in Eight U.S. Cities," a report
that covers much more than homicide), only 2 percent of criminal guns come from
That finding is consistent with a
mid-1980s study for the NIJ, which investigated 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 source of
criminal gun acquisition that they were not even worth reporting as a separate
At the most recent meeting of the
American Society of Criminology, a study of youthful offenders in Michigan found
that only 3 percent of the youths in the study had acquired their last handgun
from a gun show. (Of course some criminal gun acquisition at gun shows is
perpetrated by "straw purchasers" who are legal gun buyers acting as
surrogates for the individual who wants the gun. Straw purchases have been
federal felonies since 1968.)
According to 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 a major 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 -- the latter a son of a longtime HCI
activist) were legal purchasers.
Since every gun show takes 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: the imposition of federal background checks on
personal sales at gun shows.
The Senate version -- passed 51-50
thanks to Vice President Gore -- goes much further, setting the stage for gun
shows to be outlawed. 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 that were popular for competitive target shooting.
Although a federal statute specifically orders Treasury to allow the import of
"sporting" firearms, Treasury claimed that only firearms that 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
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 writes a column twice a month for
the Colorado Springs Gazette. In
addition, Mr. Kopel writes frequently for the following magazines: Reason,
Review, Chronicles, The
American Guardian, and The American Enterprise. He is also an
associate policy analyst at the Cato Institute.
For more of Dave Kopel's writings go to The