The Floodgates Open
ATF Director Dickerson’s reservations about loosening the restrictions on dealer sales at gun shows turned out to be well-founded. With ATF policy made law by McClure-Volkmer, hundreds of thousands of federally licensed dealers previously prohibited from selling at gun shows could now do so. And “hobbyists”—those without Federal Firearms Licenses—selling from their “personal collections” could operate at gun shows with little fear of prosecution for dealing in firearms without a license.
The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms maintains no historical records as to the number of gun shows that occur annually and can only offer rough estimates as to the number today. ATF estimates that there are now 2,000 gun shows held in the United States each year.18 Yet, in contrast, the National Association of Arms Shows estimates there are more than 100 gun shows every weekend—for an annual total of 5,200 shows. The National Association of Arms Shows also estimates that more than five million people attend such shows each year and that they generate billions of dollars in sales.
To gauge the increase in the number of gun shows and the role of McClure-Volkmer, the Violence Policy Center conducted interviews across the country with federal, state, and local law enforcement officials as well as with gun show promoters. The VPC surveyed a total of 25 individuals in 16 states regarding their experience with gun shows and similar events, such as flea markets. Of those surveyed, 14 offered opinions on whether the number of gun shows in their area had increased or decreased. Ten of the 14—or 71 percent—stated that there had been an increase in the number of gun shows over the past 10 years. Three believed the number of shows had remained constant, and only one said the number had decreased.19 One regional ATF official queried additional supervisors regarding the number of gun shows in states under the office’s jurisdiction and reported that “several out of my eight supervisors said we definitely had an increase of more than 50 percent in the last 10 years.”
The survey found significant evidence that the changes resulting from McClure-Volkmer were a key factor in the increase in the number of gun shows and that this expansion presented federal, state, and local law enforcement officials with an array of new problems related to illegal firearms trafficking. While the exact number of shows remains uncertain, extensive evidence does exist that they are virtually unregulated, are a key tool for criminal gun traffickers, and function as a common meeting place for criminals.20
Gun Shows Multiply: “It’s a Fad, Just Like Friends“
A sample of the comments from law enforcement personnel and gun show promoters attest to dramatic increases in the number of gun shows during the past 10 years—
There’s a big increase in the number of gun shows. [T]here are many more than 10 years ago. Dealers can now legally sell at gun shows. Most of them, before it was legal, did not sell at shows. They’re [gun shows] popular because they can increase their business. Howard Wolfe, Area Supervisor, ATF North Atlantic District Office, Pittsburgh, PA.
I’m sure they have been on the increase—you just see more and more of them. Tom Conley, Indianapolis Gun and Knife Show, Indianapolis, IN.
There’s more and more people with licenses becoming involved….There seems to be more shows than ever before….It’s a fad, just like Friends. Albert Ross, Spokesperson, Dallas Arms Collectors Association, Arlington, TX.
They’ve [gun shows] become more popular. I remember the days when there was a show only once every three months. Now you can go to one just about every weekend….Show size ranges from 150 to 1,500 tables….Attendance at a good show will run seven to eight people per table at the show. I heard about a show a couple a weeks ago that had 18,000 people come. That’s a lot of folks in two days. David Cook, Show Organizer, North Texas Gun Club, Dallas, TX.
Gun shows appear to be so popular and such a huge revenue generator that in some states, dealers can’t afford to not participate. The St. Petersburg Times reported in September 1993 that five of the 10 highest volume dealers in Florida regularly sold at gun shows and that one—Weapons Unlimited—sold exclusively at gun shows.
And while there is general agreement that the number of shows nationally has increased, the jump is not uniform. Interviews with law enforcement in a few states or localities with more restrictive guns laws report a lower number of shows. In states such as California and New York, strict firearms control laws may combine with negative public attitudes to make gun shows less common.
“No One Wants To Wait”—Storefront Dealers Versus Kitchen-Table Dealers and Hobbyists
Problems arose almost immediately when Federal Firearms License holders were allowed to sell at gun shows in direct competition with unlicensed “hobbyists” and “collectors.” Licensed dealers are required to follow sales criteria under federal law: e.g., federal sales forms, age restrictions, and more recently background checks and waiting periods. Unlicensed sellers—who as private citizens did not have to meet these requirements—made a more appealing sales outlet to both the law-abiding (who, like most Americans, prefer not to wait) and the criminal purchaser seeking to avoid a paper trail.
Gun show promoters, who had previously only dealt with part-time, unlicensed hobbyists, were sometimes not swift enough in familiarizing themselves with the applicable federal, state, and local laws. Dick Van Loan, an area supervisor of regulatory enforcement in the Detroit, Michigan ATF field office, notes, “When licensed dealers were allowed…there was a large expansion of gun shows and the gun show promoters weren’t very familiar with the laws. They had both licensed and unlicensed…[sellers]…sitting table to table. The legitimate dealers were paying the state sales tax and complying with state laws and the others guys weren’t.”
Tension also grew among license holders, who are themselves divided into two groups: “storefront” or “stocking” dealers who sell from traditional retail outlets open during standard business hours, and “kitchen-table” dealers who operate out of their homes or at gun shows.
Bill Bridgewater, executive director of the National Alliance of Stocking Gun Dealers, expressed the sentiments of many stocking dealers in a May 1993 letter to the House of Representatives Crime and Criminal Justice Subcommittee:
The BATF has established rules and regulations for these things they call `gun shows.’ The opportunity for the black marketeers is that the BATF doesn’t enforce those regulations and there isn’t anyone else to do so. Consequently, there are literally hundreds of `gun shows’ scattered around the country where you may rent tables, display your wares, sell what you please to whomever you please and once again the sale that is made with no records, no questions and no papers, earns the highest sales price….There are wide open `gun shows’ the length and breadth of the United States, wherein anyone may do as he chooses, including buy firearms for children.
Federal Law Regulating Firearm Sales by Federal Firearms License (FFL) Holders and Non-Licensed Sellers
|Federal Firearms License (FFL) Holders||Non-Licensed Sellers|
|Selling In-State||Selling In-State|
|Federal Firearms License (FFL) holders doing business in their home state must comply with all federal recordkeeping requirements (record of sales, multiple sales reports, etc.).||Non-licensed individuals selling in their home state are not required to comply with federal recordkeeping requirements.|
|Federal Firearms License (FFL) holders doing business in their home state must ensure that buyers abide by all federal sales criteria (waiting period, background check, etc.) as well as any state or local requirements.||Non-licensed individuals selling in their home state are not required to meet federal sales criteria (waiting period, background check, etc.). Non-licensed individuals must meet state or local criteria only if specifically stated in state or local law.|
|Federal Firearms License (FFL) holders doing business in their home state may sell handguns to residents of their state of licensure only.||Non-licensed individuals selling in their home state may sell handguns to residents of their home state only.|
|Federal Firearms License (FFL) holders doing business in their home state may sell long guns to resident of any state as long as all laws of both states are complied with.||Non-licensed individuals selling in their home state may sell long guns to residents of their home state only.|
|Federal Firearms License (FFL) holders doing business in their home state may dispose of firearms to any Federal Firearms License (FFL) holder.||Non-licensed individuals may dispose of firearms to any Federal Firearms License (FFL) holder.|
|Selling Out-of-State||Selling Out-of-State|
|Federal Firearms License (FFL) holders doing business in their home state cannot sell handguns to out-of-state residents.||Non-licensed individuals may not sell firearms to non-licensed out-of-state residents.|
|Federal Firearms License (FFL) holders doing business in a state in which they are not licensed can only display and take orders.||Non-licensed individuals may sell firearms outside of their state of residence only to Federal Firearms License (FFL) holders.|
|Federal Firearms License (FFL) holders doing business in a state in which they are not licensed can acquire firearms from any FFL licensed in that state and from any non-licensed individual.||Non-licensed individuals may acquire long guns out-of-state from Federal Firearms License (FFL) holders if 1) the FFL is licensed in that state, and, 2) the laws of both states are complied with.|
The competition between hobbyists, kitchen-table dealers, and stocking dealers helped create an atmosphere that invited illegal conduct. The result of this competition was detailed in a July 1993 investigative report by Florida’s St. Petersburg Times. In the article Harvey Eberg, a licensed dealer at a Tampa gun show, explained why several unlicensed sellers would not provide their names to the Times reporter:
`The reason most of them won’t give you their names is because they’re breaking the law,’ he said loudly. `I fight it all the time. At every gun show people walk up and ask, `Are you a dealer?” Eberg said. If you are, `they won’t deal with you,’ he said, and if not, `There are no receipts, no anything. Just the money changes hands. It’s kind of frustrating….[Y]ou lose out. No one wants to deal with the $5 [Florida background check] charge. No one wants to deal with the paperwork. No one wants to wait.’
The Violence Policy Center’s survey of law enforcement personnel confirms that such situations are not unique to Florida. In the survey, Charles Tocci, press secretary for the Pennsylvania State Police, detailed the results of a year-long investigation that ended in December 1994:
About a year ago there was a state police undercover [operation] at several gun shows in Pennsylvania that ultimately led to the arrest of about 50 individuals that were selling illegal weapons ranging from switchblade knives to fully automatic firearms. Some were [licensed] and some were not. The shows ranged from central Pennsylvania near Harrisburg to gun shows in the eastern part of the state—some even sold at flea markets, made the contact at the gun show and met the purchaser later.
In a December 1994 press release on the above arrests, then-State Police Commissioner Glen A. Walp stated that “the most ‘alarming’ aspect of the investigation was that most of the illegal weapons were openly sold at gun shows and flea markets, some by federally licensed dealers.” The state police provided a list of 21 Pennsylvania gun shows and flea markets at which undercover officers were able to purchase unregistered firearms without being required to show any identification or complete the necessary transfer documents. Walp said that “such transactions leave police agencies with little ability to trace weapons used in criminal acts.” Walp’s concerns are echoed by ATF personnel—
They [gun shows] are a source of easily picking up weapons—not necessarily from dealers but from private people. You may have a private individual selling guns right next to a private dealer. The dealer is regulated under California law. For example, if I have a gun and want to sell it under the California law I have to go to a licensed dealer. The dealer then submits a DROS—dealer record of sale. They wait the 15- day period then the individual goes to a gun store and picks up the firearm. But being realistic, if I have a firearm and you have the money, they’re not always going to wait. That’s what we find happening quite a bit at gun shows and flea markets. Ed Gleba, Public Information Officer, ATF Field Division, San Francisco, CA.
The biggest problem we’ve seen is that many dealers don’t post their licenses. It’s hard to tell who’s a dealer and who’s not. I’ve heard from purchasers that some dealers feel the rules they have to follow in their shops don’t apply to gun shows. I talked to one guy buying at a show who bought his gun and asked the dealer didn’t he have to fill out some form, and the dealer said, `Since we’re at a gun show you don’t have to do that.’ Howard Wolfe, Area Supervisor, ATF North Atlantic District Office, Pittsburgh, PA.
The frustration felt by storefront dealers toward kitchen-table dealers who sell primarily at gun shows is often expressed in firearms industry publications. In the May 1996 issue of Shooting Industry, a gun store owner from Virginia offered some pointed commentary: “[H]ave you noticed the cost of insurance? What about matching social security for your employees? It’s an easy thing to set up at a gun show every weekend and blow out products at 10 percent over cost….If a person wants to become a firearms dealer, fine, let him open a business and operate it on Saturday like we do, instead of going off to the gun show and prostituting the business.” He also relayed some facts regarding the level of regulation at gun shows, stating that “even the concessions at gun shows have to abide by more rules than the gun dealers….”
A New Market for Machine Gun Dealers
McClure-Volkmer also opened up extensive new sales opportunities for so-called Class 3 dealers—those who deal in weapons regulated under the National Firearms Act of 1934 (NFA), including machine guns, sawed-off rifles and shotguns, and silencers.21
According to Dan Shea’s Machine Gun Dealer’s Bible, a how-to guide for novice NFA merchants, “For the Class 3 dealer who is looking to make sales to individuals, gun shows are the key.” Gun shows provide a forum where there are “thousands of interested people browsing through your table, with impulse buying almost the whole purpose in being there.” The shows also give the customer a chance to “see the things that he’s been watching in the movies firsthand.”
Gun shows, however, do provide some risks for Class 3 dealers. Author Shea warns fellow Class 3 dealers not to put business cards out on the display table:
You may end up with the Bloods and Crips taking a pile of your cards and informing you that they are going to ‘make you rich.’ They won’t—they’ll make you dead or in jail. It happened to me once….I had to drop a stun bag into my M79 and point the barrel down the leader’s nose to get him to put my cards back.
Shea also instructs Class 3 dealers to “make sure that a copy of your FFL is on display,” since “gun shows are a primary place for BATF ‘sting’ operations.”
Law enforcement officials interviewed by the VPC note that failure by dealers to display their licenses is not uncommon. Howard Wolfe, an ATF area supervisor in Pittsburgh, says that a concern of dealers is that if they post their license it is apt to be stolen: “One guy told me about someone who was wandering around his table. The dealer had his license taped up against a glass display, and the next time he turned around the guy was using his fingernails to try and scrape the license off the glass.”
Machine gun shoots—organized events where full-auto enthusiasts gather to shoot at targets ranging from old refrigerators to cars—almost always include a gun show. This offers the advantage, according to Shea, of allowing potential buyers to try the gun out.22
Law Enforcement Limitations: “Too Many Gun Shows and Not Enough Agents”
The Violence Policy Center survey revealed widespread frustration by law enforcement personnel over their inability to regulate gun shows and ensure compliance with federal and state law. The most often cited impediment to enforcement is the sheer number of shows coupled with budget and manpower limitations. As San Francisco ATF Public Information Officer Ed Gleba lamented, “There are just too many gun shows and not enough agents.”
This is compounded by ATF policies restricting the agency’s regulation of gun shows. In 1979, ATF’s policy regarding gun shows and flea markets limited the agency’s investigatons to “situations where there are specific allegations that Machine Gun Shoot Adsignificant violations have occurred and where there is reliable information that guns sold at the specific gun show or flea market have shown up in crimes of violence with some degree of regularity.” As illustrated by the comments below, in the nearly two decades since then little has changed:
We don’t get that much involved as far as gun shows are concerned. As far as enforcement, if it’s a gun show or a store we don’t go in just to enforce. If there’s a violation or a potential violation that’s when we would go. We don’t go into gun shows in the same way we don’t go into stores. We investigate specific violations and persons not the whole store or show. There’s no regular inspections. The persons who go into gun shows are FFL holders who get inspected at their place of business. Or you get other people who sell without an FFL out of their collection and they’re allowed to do so. Orlando Blanco, Public Information Officer, ATF Field Division, Miami, FL.
We just can’t go in—we’re precluded…from doing such. We can’t just go out and target or focus on gun shows. Joe Green, Public Information Officer, ATF Field Division, New York, NY.
We don’t walk through carte blanche looking for violations. If we have a specific violation to investigate we will. I’ve had complaints from licensed dealers about unlicensed dealers selling at gun shows but in some cases they have been unwilling to provide us with a name. We don’t have unlimited resources and we cannot attend every gun show in the state of Georgia. Robert Browning, Public Information Officer, ATF Field Division, Atlanta, GA.
ATF’s passive policy on gun show regulation was recently reiterated in a 1996 memorandum responding to an inquiry from Senator Richard Shelby (R-AL) obtained by the Violence Policy Center under the Freedom of Information Act. In a document titled “Firearms Licensees’ Conduct of Business at Unlicensed Locations,” the agency informed the senator, “ATF initiates criminal investigations of licensees who willfully violate the law and are believed to be involved in criminal activity such as providing firearms for use in crime. These investigations are initiated with the approval of the appropriate ATF Special Agent in Charge.” Or as Richard Garner, special agent in charge of the ATF Nashville Field Division, told the VPC, “Although we do have some very effective proactive programs, the bulk of our activity is reactive. If we are informed that gun runners are operating in the black market then we will initiate a criminal investigation.”
That gun shows often degenerate into criminal swap meets is no surprise. In response to questions submitted by the Violence Policy Center for its 1992 study More Gun Dealers Than Gas Stations, ATF noted, “Given the number of shows and flea markets, the agency cannot patrol these events, but does respond to information and allegations of illegal activity.”
- ATF says this figure is based on a review of advertisements in the publication Gun Show Calendar for July 1994 through June 1995.
- The one respondent who said that the number of gun shows in his area had decreased was in California. In addition to its strict over-the-counter sales criteria, California also regulates who may sell firearms at gun shows as well as the type and number of weapons that may be sold. The state also requires that all secondary transfers go through a firearms dealer.
- Furthermore, it is impossible to know exactly how many guns traced to crime by ATF were acquired at gun shows. Federal Firearms License holders are not required to record on sales forms that a particular gun was transferred at a gun show rather than at the license holder’s regular place of business. In addition, in most states no records are kept of sales at gun shows by private citizens.
- Pursuant to the National Firearms Act, citizens may possess these types of weapons under certain restrictions. Purchasers must undergo a registration and background check procedure and pay a $200 “transfer tax.” The manufacture and sale of new machine guns was banned in 1986, but machine guns manufactured before May 19, 1986 are transferrable.
- Shea cautions, however, that advertisement of such events should be limited to gun-related publications such as Machine Gun News, Shotgun News, and Gun Week, or flyers placed at gun shops, VFW halls, and legion halls. Advertising in mass media outlets, he warns, will only result in “professional whiners at town hall crying about how can they allow this kind of activity, and there will be some of the local weak-minded droolers painting their faces white and wandering about the entrance to the shoot, screeching about war mongers and end-of-the-world scenarios.”
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