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|U.S. Firearms Legal Topics|
A gun show is a temporary exhibition or gathering in the United States where firearms, firearm accessories, ammunition, literature, knives, militaria, and miscellaneous collectibles are displayed, bought, sold, traded, and discussed. Gun shows also often include exhibitions related to hunting and the preparation and preservation of wild game for consumption. They also may be used by gun manufacturers to demonstrate new firearm models—or by gun enthusiasts to exhibit antique or unusual guns. Gun shows also serve as common and recurring meeting places for shooters to discuss gun culture topics such as the right to keep and bear arms.
Gun shows are typically held in public buildings, including hotels, malls, armories, stadiums, etc., and are open to the public with a nominal fee charged for admittance. They are almost always two-day events held on weekends by promoters who lease the space and allow dealers to rent tables to display their wares and/or advertise services they provide.
In 2005, Michael Bouchard, Assistant Director/Field Operations of ATF, estimated that 5,000 gun shows take place each year in the United States. Most gun shows have 2,500 to 15,000 attendees over a two-day period. The number of tables at a gun show varies from as few as fifty to as many as 2,000. At the largest gun shows, over 1,000 firearms are sold over two days.
Under the Gun Control Act of 1968 (GCA), firearm dealers with a Federal Firearms License (FFL) were prohibited from doing business at gun shows (they were only permitted to do business at the address listed on their license). That changed with the enactment of the Firearm Owners Protection Act of 1986 (FOPA), which allows FFLs to transfer firearms at gun shows provided they follow the provisions of the GCA and other pertinent federal regulations. The ATF reports that between 50% and 75% of the vendors at gun shows possess a Federal Firearms License.
Some states in the United States, such as Texas, have numerous gun shows, while others, such as New Jersey, rarely have gun shows. In New Jersey, only one gun show—run by an antique gun collectors club—takes place monthly. Absolutely no transfers of modern firearms are allowed at the New Jersey gun show. The New Jersey antique gun show is attended by less than 200 patrons. By U.S. standards, the state of New Jersey, has very strict firearms regulations and laws. In Texas, on the other hand, over 150 gun shows take place every year, most of them attracting thousands of patrons. There is very little state or federal regulation regarding the private transfer of firearms at Texan gun shows. In the state of Colorado, all firearms sales/transfers at Colorado gun shows are subject to both FBI and Colorado CBI background checks, including private sales/transfers of firearms. Private sale and transfer of firearms in the state of Colorado are still legal outside of gun shows. In contrast, in many other states, private sales or transfer of firearms between private citizens of the same state are legal regardless of whether they occur inside or outside of gunshows. Oregon is host to some 160 gun shows every year.
Beginning in the early 2000s, gun shows became controversial in the United States. Those concerned about these events claim that American gun shows are a primary source of illegally trafficked firearms, both within the United States and abroad. Those supporting gun shows include gun clubs and their membership, especially the National Rifle Association, and their response has been massive because they feel their Second Amendment rights are being jeopardized.
U.S. federal law requires persons engaged in interstate firearm commerce, or those who are "engaged in the business" of dealing firearms, to hold a Federal Firearms License and perform background checks through the National Instant Criminal Background Check System maintained by the FBI prior to transferring a firearm. Under the terms of the Firearm Owners Protection Act of 1986, however, individuals "not engaged in the business" of dealing firearms, or who only make "occasional" sales within their state of residence, are under no requirement to conduct background checks on purchasers or maintain records of sale (although even private sellers are forbidden under federal law from selling firearms to persons they have reason to believe are felons or otherwise prohibited from purchasing firearms).
Those seeking to close the "Gun Show Loophole" argue that it provides convicted felons and other prohibited purchasers (such as domestic abusers, substance abusers, and those who have been adjudicated as "mental defectives,") with opportunities to evade background checks, as they can easily buy firearms from private sellers with no accountability or oversight.
Use of the "Gun Show Loophole" has been advocated by terrorists. In the summer of 2011, Adam Gadahn declared that "America is absolutely awash with easily obtainable firearms." He also claimed that, "You can go down to a gun show at the local convention center and come away with a fully automatic assault rifle, without a background check, and most likely without having to show an identification card," Gadahn urged Western extremists to follow this path. Subsequent news analysis indicated that individuals could not actually buy a fully automatic firearm at gun shows without lengthy background checks and approvals, although purchases of non-automatic firearms are legal in most jurisdictions without a criminal background check, if purchased from a private seller who is not in the business of regularly selling firearms.
The term "Gun Show Loophole" has been contentious with gun rights advocates, however. They claim there is no "loophole," only a long-standing tradition of free commerce between private parties that heretofore has not been restricted in the context of secondary, intrastate firearm sales. Furthermore, they argue that the term "Gun Show Loophole" is misleading, as private firearm sellers are not required to perform background checks regardless of location—whether they are at a gun show, a flea market, their home, or anywhere else. They also challenge federal jurisdiction in intrastate transactions between private parties, which they argue exceeds the federal power created by the Commerce Clause.
In July 2009, Representatives Michael Castle and Carolyn McCarthy introduced the Gun Show Loophole Closing Act of 2009 (H.R. 2324) in the U.S. House of Representatives. Sen. Frank Lautenberg introduced similar legislation, the "Gun Show Background Check Act of 2009"(S. 843), in the U.S. Senate. As of October 2009, the House version of the bill had 35 co-sponsors (mostly Democrats) and the Senate version had 15 co-sponsors, all Democrats.
Presently, 18 states regulate private firearm sales at gun shows. Seven states require background checks on all gun sales at gun shows (California, Colorado (§12-26.1-101 and § 24-33.5-424, CRS), Rhode Island, Connecticut, Oregon, New York, and Illinois). Four states (Hawaii, Maryland, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania) require background checks on all handguns, but not long guns, purchasers at gun shows. Seven states require individuals to obtain a permit to purchase handguns that involves a background check (Massachusetts, Michigan, North Carolina, Iowa, Nebraska, Minnesota). Certain counties in Florida require background checks on all private sales of handguns at gun shows. The remaining 33 states do not restrict private, intrastate sales of firearms at gun shows in any manner.
In 2000, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms (ATF) published the "Following the Gun" report. The ATF analyzed more than 1,530 trafficking investigations over a two-and-a-half-year period and found gun shows to be the second leading source of illegally diverted guns in the nation. "Straw purchasing was the most common channel in trafficking investigations." These investigations involved a total of 84,128 firearms that had been diverted from legal to illegal commerce. All told, the report identified more than 26,000 firearms that had been illegally trafficked through gun shows in 212 separate investigations. The report stated that: "A prior review of ATF gun show investigations shows that prohibited persons, such as convicted felons and juveniles, do personally buy firearms at gun shows and gun shows are sources of firearms that are trafficked to such prohibited persons. The gun show review found that firearms were diverted at and through gun shows by straw purchasers, unregulated private sellers, and licensed dealers. Felons were associated with selling or purchasing firearms in 46 percent of the gun show investigations. Firearms that were illegally diverted at or through gun shows were recovered in subsequent crimes, including homicide and robbery, in more than a third of the gun show investigations."
In contrast, a Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS) report on “Firearms Use by Offenders” found that only 0.8% of prison inmates reported acquiring firearms used in their crimes "At a gun show," with repeat offenders less likely than first-time offenders to report acquiring firearms from a retail source, gun show or flea market. This 2001 study examined data from a 1997 Department of Justice survey of more than 18,000 federal and state prison inmates in 1,409 State prisons and 127 Federal prisons. The remaining 99.2% of inmates reported obtaining firearms from other sources, including "From a friend/family member" (36.8%), "Off the street/from a drug dealer" (20.9%), "From a fence/black market source" (9.6%), "From a pawnshop," "From a flea market," "From the victim," or "In a burglary." 9% of inmates replied "Don't Know/Other" to the question of where they acquired a firearm and 4.4% refused to answer. The Department of Justice did not attempt to verify the firearms reported in the survey or trace them to determine their chain of possession from original retail sale to the time they were transferred to the inmates surveyed (in cases where inmates were not the original retail purchaser).
Gun-control advocate Garen Wintemute, Director of UC Davis’ Violence Prevention Research Program, released a study in 2007 claiming that gun shows are a venue for illegal activity, including straw purchases and unlicensed sales to prohibited individuals. In contrast, in 2008, professors Mark Duggan and Randi Hjalmarsson at the University of Maryland and Brian Jacob from the University of Michigan released a paper that found no evidence that gun shows lead to substantial increases in either gun homicides or gun suicides. The study looked at 2,200 gun shows in Texas and almost 1,200 gun shows in California during the period of 1994–2004 and examined their effect on gun homicide and gun suicide rates within a 25-mile radius of the shows in the four weeks immediately following their conclusion. The researchers stated that, “Taken together, our results suggest that gun shows do not increase the number of homicides or suicides and that the absence of gun show regulations does not increase the number of gun-related deaths as proponents of these regulations suggest.” However, the Duggan, et al., paper was critiqued publicly by other researchers from the University of California, Davis, the Harvard School of Public Health, the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, Northeastern University, the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University, and the University of California, Berkeley. These researchers critiqued the model underlying the paper for failing to reflect the realities of the operations of gun markets and the dynamics of criminal gun use.
From 2004 to 2006, ATF conducted surveillance and undercover investigations at 195 gun shows (approximately 2% of all shows). Specific targeting of suspected individuals (77%) resulted in 121 individual arrests and 5,345 firearms seizures. Seventy nine of the 121 ATF operation plans were known suspects previously under investigation.
Additionally, ATF Field Offices report that:
Regarding the trafficking of firearms from the U.S. into Mexico, the U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) issued a report in June 2009 which stated: “While it is impossible to know how many firearms are illegally smuggled into Mexico in a given year, about 87 percent of firearms seized by Mexican authorities and traced in the last 5 years originated in the United States, according to data from Department of Justice’s Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF). According to U.S. and Mexican government officials, these firearms have been increasingly more powerful and lethal in recent years. Many of these firearms come from gun shops and gun shows in Southwest border states.” 
The GAO report has been corroborated through other sources. William Newell, Special Agent in Charge of ATF’s Phoenix Field Division, testified before a U.S. House of Representatives subcommittee in March 2009, stating, “Drug traffickers are able to obtain firearms and ammunition more easily in the U.S., including sources in the secondary market such as gun shows and flea markets. Depending on State law, the private sale of firearms at those venues often does not require record keeping or background checks prior to the sale.”  The ATF has also reported that, “Trends indicate the firearms illegally crossing the U.S.-Mexico border are becoming more powerful. ATF has analyzed firearms seizures in Mexico from FY 2005-07 and identified the following weapons most commonly used by drug traffickers: 9mm pistols; .38 Super pistols; 5.7mm pistols; .45-caliber pistols; AR-15 type rifles; and AK-47 type rifles.”  However, this is based only on the weapons sent to the ATF to be traced, a small portion of all firearms seized by the Mexican government, and the extent to which they are representative of all seized firearms is disputed. According to Raul Benitez, a security expert at the National Autonomous University of Mexico, "Mexico's southern border with Guatemala has long been an entry point for such weapons and today could account for 10 to 15 percent coming through." William La Jeunesse and Maxim Lott have described Mexico as a "virtual arms bazaar," where one can purchase a wide variety of military weapons from international sources: "fragmentation grenades from South Korea, AK-47s from China, and shoulder-fired rocket launchers from Spain, Israel and former Soviet bloc manufacturers." In addition, they note that Mexican drug cartels have long-established drug- and gun-running ties with Latin American revolutionary movements such as Colombia's FARC. Further, China has supplied military arms to Latin America and Chinese-made assault weapons have been recovered in Mexico, according to Amnesty International. Finally, the Mexican army has seen rampant desertion rates (150,000 in the last six years) and many soldiers have taken their weapons home with them, including Belgian-made M16s.
Additionally, skeptics have pointed out that it would be difficult for the Mexican drug cartels to acquire fully automatic firearms at American gun shows (as opposed to the semiautomatic-only versions of these firearms that are legal on the U.S. civilian market). To purchase or transfer a fully automatic firearm legally, U.S. citizens must pay a $200 transfer tax, submit a full set of fingerprints on FBI Form FD-258, obtain certification provided by a chief law enforcement officer ("CLEO": the local chief of police, sheriff of the county, head of the State police, or State or local district attorney or prosecutor), and obtain final approval from the BATF on a Form 4 transfer of NFA registration to the new owner. In addition, only fully automatic firearms manufactured before the Firearm Owner's Protection Act of 1986 are permitted to be transferred. No fully automatic firearms (machine guns) recovered in Mexico have been traced to the United States.