Defending Gun Shows

Your freedom's at stake.

Mr. Kopel, research director, Paul Gallant, & Joanne Eisen of the Independence Institute

March 15, 2001 9:45 a.m., National Review Online. More by Kopel on gun shows.

Dismayed by the meager political accomplishments of Handgun Control, Inc. (HCI), former HCI board member Andy McKelvey (the billionaire owner of has founded his own gun-control group, which he calls "Americans for Gun Safety." You might expect that a group called Americans for Gun Safety would promote successful gun-safety programs, such as the NRA's Eddie Eagle accident-prevention program, which has been lauded by the National Safety Council.

But Americans for Gun "Safety" is doing no such thing. Despite the group's moderate name, its list of affiliates includes many groups that oppose any form of gun ownership by anyone other than government employees.

For example, the affiliate Women Against Gun Violence advises, "Remove any guns from your home." And it turns out that the top item on the AGS agenda is exactly the same as the top item on the agenda of firearm-prohibition groups like HCI — namely, closing the so-called gun show "loophole." In fact, AGS is currently running a television ad campaign claiming that "convicted felons are buying guns at gun shows, where background checks are not always required."

"Close the gun-show loophole!" is a now-familiar refrain. Just "common-sense" legislation aimed at dealing with America's social ills? It might appear that way…until one takes a closer look.

On February 21, 2001, an editorial in the Washington Times observed that, in Maryland, gun-control groups were pushing a bill that would prohibit the sale or display of guns on any property owned by the Maryland National Park Planning Commission. If passed, the editorial concluded, the law would prevent many of the annual gun shows that take place in the state of Maryland — all of them indubitably legal — from continuing.

Maryland already has a state-level law like the one AGS and HCI are backing at the national level: Every sale at a gun show requires government permission, a background check, and gun registration — even a sale by a small-time collector who is just selling three guns over the course of a weekend.

Yet Marylanders Against Handgun Abuse — which AGS touts as a favored "local gun safety group" — is attempting to end gun shows there.

In California, the laws governing gun shows and private sales are like those in Maryland. Yet local affiliates of national anti-gun groups have pushed hard to shut down gun shows entirely in several California counties.

One gun-control supporter, quoted in the Washington Post, claimed that the Maryland legislation "has to do with public safety, especially the safety of our children". But, as the Washington Times editorial pointed out, "what 'public safety' purpose is served by making life harder for people without criminal records, who pass background checks and who are buying firearms in a perfectly lawful manner?"

Asked the Times editorial, "If gun-control advocates only want to bar criminals from gaining access to guns — and to 'close loopholes' in the law that make it easier for crooks to get firearms — why are they backing legislation that would prohibit lawful gun shows on state-owned property, where all state and federal firearms transactions procedures are followed to the letter?"

The Times provided its own answer: Proponents of the Maryland bill "have but one object in mind — making it harder, in time impossible, for ordinary people to purchase firearms, period."

Herewith a February 18, 2001, Washington Post report on an effort to ban gun shows on public property in Montgomery County, Md.: "Gun-control advocates urged the country council to take any steps it can to reduce the availability of guns."

Does Americans for Gun Safety really believe, as its commercial proclaims, that "in America, we have the right to own a gun"? If so, then why is AGS promoting extremist groups which think that trying to stop law-abiding people from buying guns is a good idea?

Despite all the disinformation spread by the gun-prohibition lobby, a gun show is really nothing more than people wishing to sell one or more firearms to others who wish to purchase (or simply to gaze upon) the merchandise. Most of the sellers are federally licensed dealers displaying their wares to prospective buyers outside their normal place of business.

Anyone engaged in the business of selling firearms is required to be licensed by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms. (18 U.S. Code, sect. 923(a).) According to federal law, dealer sales must be accompanied by an instant background check, regardless of the premises where the transaction takes place. Federal law does not allow any exceptions. If you are engaged in the business of selling firearms, then you have to fill out the federal paperwork, and call the FBI to get permission for every sale. There is no gun show "loophole" which changes the rules.

On the other hand, people who are not engaged in the business of selling firearms, but who sell firearms once in a while (such as a man who sells a hunting rifle to his brother-in-law), are not required to obtain the federal firearms 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 his guns, she does not need a federal license, because she is just selling inherited property and is not "engaged in the business." And if the widow doesn't want to take out an ad in the classifieds to sell her deceased husband's guns, it is lawful for her to rent a table at a gun show and sell the entire collection over the weekend.

Basically, the furor over the so-called gun show "loophole" amounts to a complaint by gun-prohibition groups that people outside the firearms business aren't controlled by the same federal laws that pertain to licensed firearms businessmen.

Why do law-abiding firearms owners and their organizations resist the efforts of AGS, HCI, MAHA, and other gun-control groups to impose federal background checks and paperwork on gun sales by private citizens?

Peaceable gun-owners would gladly absorb the cost of the National Instant Check System (NICS) and comply with its not-so-instant provisions (many "instant" background checks take days, not minutes; and the number of mistaken denials is very large) — if they thought that those who proposed such legislation were honest in their motives, and if they thought that the checks would make a significant dent in the criminal misuse of firearms.

But the hidden agenda of SAFE (Colorado's main anti-gun group) was captured on tape, with one of its leaders explaining that the group's "gun-show" initiative (which passed last November in Colorado) was just an "incremental" step toward the goal of requiring government approval for all firearms transfers, even between two private individuals.

And in an anonymous gun-owner poll which ran in the December 2000 issue of Guns & Ammo magazine (the largest over-the-newsstand gun periodical), 60% of almost 7,000 respondents disagreed with the statement "The National Instant Check System is an effective means for preventing criminals from obtaining firearms."

Scientific validation of the failure of NICS was provided just last summer, when the verdict came in on the most famous gun law in America, one whose centerpiece was the instant criminal background check: the Brady Law, enacted in 1993. In the August 2, 2000 issue of the Journal of the American Medical Association, pro-control researchers Jens Ludwig and Philip Cook forthrightly concluded that "Our analyses provide no evidence that implementation of the Brady Act was associated with a reduction in homicide rates…[nor] an association of the Brady Act with overall suicide rates."

The far more sophisticated research by Prof. John Lott on the effects of the Brady Act, in the second edition of his book, More Guns, Less Crime, is consistent with the findings of the JAMA study. (Lott controlled for variables such as law-enforcement effectiveness and the length of different state waiting periods, which the JAMA authors did not). Lott found no statistically significant effect on firearms-related deaths.

Lott also looked at other violent crimes, while the JAMA authors studied only homicide and suicide. For most crimes, Brady produced no statistically significant impact — except that rape rose 3.6% and aggravated assaults against women rose 2.5%, perhaps because the Brady waiting period delayed handgun purchases by five government working days, even for women who needed immediate protection against stalkers and similar threats.

Anti-gun groups use the gun-show "loophole" issue to perpetrate their usual bait-and-switch. According to the new Colorado law pushed by AGS, HCI, and SAFE, any time three people are present, that's a "gun show." Thus, a "gun show" can be nothing more than a gathering in Aunt May's home for the purpose of selling her recently deceased husband's collection of firearms, providing the purchaser and Aunt May's daughter are present.

Notably, anti-gun groups insist that whenever a person passes the federal background check, the government should keep records on the buyer. But what's the point of retaining a list of non-criminals who are just exercising their constitutional rights?

Simple. Firearm confiscation is a lot easier when the government has a list of every gun owner, and every gun owned. But when private citizens are allowed to sell firearms to other private citizens without getting government permission beforehand, there is no paper trail. Conversely, if buyers and sellers in private firearms transfers at a gun show are subjected to a background check, then many more people and guns will end up on the registration list.

That firearm registration lists can be used for confiscation has been well established right here in the U.S. Since 1966, all firearms in New York City have been required to be registered by law. In 1991, then-Mayor David Dinkins rammed a so-called "assault-weapons" ban through the City Council. Then, the 1966 registration law was used by the members of the NYPD to confiscate previously registered and lawfully owned firearms.

More recently, in June 1999, leaked documents from California Attorney General Bill Lockyer revealed a plan to use registration lists to confiscate "assault-weapons" — firearms that had been registered under former Attorney General Dan Lungren. Lockyer's office promptly denied they were drafted for any purpose other than "for discussion."

Curiously, there's never any mention of the real "loophole" in all these anti-gun-show schemes, the one that enables criminals to get whatever firearms they want, whenever they want: the "black market."

Canada already does what HCI and the "Million" Mom March insist America should do. Under a new law pushed through by the Liberal government of Jean Chrétien, every gun owner must be licensed, and every gun registered. Even ammunition is strictly controlled. But according to a report in the February 13, 2001 Winnipeg Free Press, Manitoba's former attorney general Vic Toews stated that "the only thing the law has done is create an underground market for ammunition, as unlicensed gun-owners shop around for shells and bullets."

A January 4, 2001 editorial in the Saskatoon Star Phoenix observed that "Justice Minister Anne McLellan simply brushed aside her advisory panel's warning that the law would 'encourage a rampant increase' in the black market for firearms… Try as it might to convince Canadians to go along with an idiotic law, the results were only too clear as Monday [the licensing deadline] dawned with untold numbers of firearms owners opting for civil disobedience rather than compliance."

Despite the obfuscation by America's anti-self-defense lobby as to what constitutes a gun show, the answer is really simple: A gun show is nothing more than the exercise of rights guaranteed in the Bill of Rights: "the freedom of speech," "the right of the people peaceably to assemble," and "the right of the people to keep and bear Arms." Indeed, two court cases explicitly recognize the First Amendment component of gun shows. They are Nordyke v. Santa Clara and Atlantic City Show Promotions v. City of Tampa.

If the censors and prohibitionists get their way and succeed in closing gun shows, they'll discover that they've created an entirely new kind of gun show: the kind that's now burgeoning in Canada, and the kind they'll be powerless to regulate.

That kind of gun show will be held in the trunk of a car.

More writings from the Independence Institute on gun shows.

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