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Gun Shows in America: Tupperware® Parties for Criminals

This executive summary is taken from the July 1996 study Gun Shows in America: Tupperware® Parties for Criminals.

Executive Summary


In 1986 the National Rifle Association (NRA) unveiled the "Firearms Owners' Protection Act." Commonly known as "McClure-Volkmer" for its congressional sponsors, then-Senator James McClure (R-ID) and former Representative Harold Volkmer (D-MO), it was designed to roll back broad sections of the Gun Control Act of 1968 (GCA). Early versions of the bill even removed restrictions on the mail-order sale of firearms. (Throughout this executive summary and the full study the bill and law are referred to as McClure-Volkmer.)

The NRA and the bill's supporters portrayed McClure-Volkmer as a gun owners' relief act. In reality, the bill did much more to advance the interests of gun sellers—both Federal Firearms License (FFL) holders and unlicensed individuals—than those of the average gun owner.

After a long, bitter debate that pitted the NRA and the firearms industry against gun control advocates and national police organizations, McClure-Volkmer passed both houses of Congress and was signed into law by President Reagan on May 19, 1986. McClure-Volkmer—

  • Allowed Federal Firearms License holders to sell guns at gun shows located in their home state.

  • Allowed individuals not federally licensed as gun dealers to sell their personal firearms as a "hobby."

  • Restricted the ability of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms (ATF) to conduct inspections of the business premises of federally licensed firearms dealers.

  • Reduced the recordkeeping required of federally licensed firearms dealers, specifically eliminating recordkeeping of ammunition sales.

  • Raised the burden of proof for violations of federal gun laws.

  • Expanded a federal program that restored the ability of convicted felons to possess firearms.

Despite the controversy generated by McClure-Volkmer, little attention has been paid to its effect in the 10 years since the law's enactment. Gun Shows in America: Tupperware® Parties for Criminals is the first in a series of studies in which the Violence Policy Center (VPC) will analyze the real-world impact of the NRA's McClure-Volkmer legislation and gauge the law's effect on public safety.

One legacy of McClure-Volkmer is the uncontrolled proliferation of gun shows—events at which private citizens and federally licensed gun dealers congregate to buy and sell firearms and related paraphernalia. The VPC's research reveals that the law has resulted in a dramatic increase in the number and size of shows, which occur in auditoriums, fairgrounds, and other outlets in almost every state on virtually every weekend of the year. The VPC's research also reveals that this dramatic increase is due largely to two little-noticed changes McClure-Volkmer made in the way that federally licensed firearms dealers are regulated—

  • The law made it legal for Federal Firearms License holders to sell at gun shows.

  • The law expanded the opportunities for private citizens to buy and sell firearms at gun shows by raising the threshold of what constituted being "engaged in the business" of selling firearms.

The result is a readily available source of weapons and ammunition for a wide variety of criminals—including street gangs, white supremacists, would-be presidential assassins, and domestic terrorists.

Changes Seen at Gun Shows as the Result of McClure-Volkmer

The Floodgates Open

As the result of McClure-Volkmer, hundreds of thousands of Federal Firearms License (FFL) holders 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 (ATF) 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. 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. 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.

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.

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.

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.

"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.

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.

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 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 Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms policies restricting the agency's regulation of gun shows. In 1979, ATF's policy regarding gun shows and flea markets limited the agency's investigations to "situations where there are specific allegations that significant 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." In the nearly two decades since then little has changed.

Illegal Trafficking at Gun Shows

Illegal firearm transactions at gun shows usually occur in one of three ways:

  • straw purchases

  • out-of-state sales

  • sales from "personal" collections

Straw Purchases: "I Would Walk Out With the Guns in My Pocket"

Straw purchases occur when a person who is not in a restricted category (the "straw man") purchases a weapon for someone who is prohibited by federal, state, or local law from purchasing or possessing a firearm. Straw men are used by criminals, minors, or others in proscribed categories to transact sales with both Federal Firearms License holders and unlicensed hobbyists. In some cases the seller does not know that the weapon is being passed on to an illegal buyer, but in others the seller is aware of the straw sale.

At a 1993 hearing on federal firearms licensing before the crime subcommittee of the House Judiciary Committee, convicted criminal Edward Daily III testified that he regularly used straw purchasers to buy handguns at gun shows in Virginia. The 22-year-old Daily traded the guns for narcotics in New York City. At the hearing, then-House Crime Subcommittee Chair Charles Schumer (D-NY), who has played a leading role in documenting gun show abuses, questioned Daily as to the role gun shows play in criminal trafficking. Daily testified, "At each gun show, there were about, maybe 250 tables with different gun dealers, and we would visit maybe 20, 30 tables. Some of them saw me every weekend, and they knew me....`Hi. How's it going....Are you picking up any guns today?'" Representative Schumer asked Daily whether "this was always at gun shows?" Daily responded, "Always at gun shows."

Out-of-State Dealers—Wheelchair Luis, Freckle Face George, Lightbulb, and Friends

Although federal law allows Federal Firearms License holders to sell at gun shows within their own state, FFL holders—and hobbyists—are not permitted to make out-of-state sales.

Evidence suggests that many dealers do not abide by the requirement that they sell only in their own state. This non-compliance by some dealers causes distress not only among law enforcement, but complying dealers. The National Association of Stocking Gun Dealers' Bill Bridgewater asserts that gun show violations occur all the time:

If you can't see them, you're blind. When you go to a [North Carolina] gun show and you see every state licensee around you for 250 to 300 miles and you chat with various folk standing behind their table of handguns...[from Ohio, Florida, Virginia], does that give you a clue? There are a lot of [illegal sales being committed] under the color of an FFL traveling state to state every weekend and attending firearms shows and selling firearms unlawfully in those states. The principal reason they do is that at every gun show in this nation no one pays any attention to the law.

Other state law enforcement authorities have experienced similar problems with out-of-state dealers. For example, Richard Yarmy illegally sold a wide variety of weapons to New York City criminals who went by the names Wheelchair Luis, Freckle Face George, and Lightbulb. According to the New York district attorney, Yarmy was indicted for using his FFL—which he had possessed for more than 10 years—to supply guns illegally to Manhattan "drug dealers and other street criminals." Upon his arrest, New York officials called Yarmy "one of the highest volume dealers" at gun shows along the eastern seaboard. Weapons seized during the course of the investigation included assault pistols, Street Sweeper shotguns, and fully automatic firearms.

Despite the clear problems associated with Federal Firearms License holders selling at out-of-state gun shows, ATF may be preparing to shoot itself in the foot on this issue. In recent letters to Senator Fred Thompson (R-TN) and Representative James Oberstar (D-MN) obtained by the Violence Policy Center through the Freedom of Information Act, ATF has agreed to support, on condition of the inclusion of certain amendments, a measure (S. 1536 in the Senate and H.R. 659 in the House) allowing dealers to conduct business at out-of-state gun shows. Although some might argue that legalizing sales at out-of-state shows would only decriminalize activity already occurring and improve recordkeeping of such sales, the risks clearly outweigh any potential benefit.

"Personal Collections"

In defining the threshold of activity one must cross to be categorized as a "dealer," McClure-Volkmer specifically excludes a person who makes "exchanges or purchases of firearms for the enhancement of a personal collection...or who sells all or part of his personal collection of firearms." Therefore, private individuals selling firearms at gun shows from their "personal collections" are not required to obtain a Federal Firearms License, and as noted earlier, need not comply with the recordkeeping and reporting requirements that apply to license holders. In addition, unscrupulous dealers can thwart gun control laws by transferring weapons to relatives' or friends' "personal collections," to be resold with no record of the ultimate purchaser.

Where the Famous and the Infamous Shop

The Famous

Gun shows appeal to a wide range of firearm enthusiasts—from hunters and collectors looking for bargains to anti-government militia members preparing for battle against the New World Order. One show organizer characterized attendees as "the same kind of people [you find] at malls" and noted that the shows were a popular destination for local celebrities, from sports heroes to politicians.

An organizer for the North Texas Gun Club lists singer Mel Torme and members of the Dallas Cowboys as visitors to his shows. And gun shows appear to be a favored forum for political candidates in conservative locales.

Probably the most famous politician with an affinity for gun shows is presidential candidate Pat Buchanan, who prior to the March 1996 Arizona primary attended a Phoenix gun show in black cowboy shirt and hat. Urging his supporters to "take back the nation," the New York Times reported that he promised fellow gun show participants that he would protect the right to bear arms as part of his "crusade for America."

And the Infamous

Gun shows hold a particular appeal for the pro-gun fringe. Militia members and other extremists attend shows not only to purchase weapons, but also to distribute anti-government materials and recruit new members.

In 1980 ATF Director G.R. Dickerson warned of the role gun shows had played in supplying weapons to a wide range of criminals—from the Symbionese Liberation Army to would-be presidential assassin Sara Jane Moore. The Weather Underground and the Black Liberation Army were also listed as having acquired firearms at gun shows. Two decades later, only the names have changed.

As early as 1993 the FBI, ATF, and Arizona Department of Public Safety were warned that Oklahoma City bombing suspect Timothy McVeigh's activities at a gun show raised suspicions that he might be dangerous and warranted investigation.

In June 1995, ABC World News Tonight reported that Timothy McVeigh's Army friend Michael Fortier had allegedly admitted to joining McVeigh and Terry Nichols in a $60,000 robbery of an Arkansas gun collector's ranch in which 70 shotguns, rifles, and handguns were taken. ABC World News Tonight reported that Fortier had admitted taking many of the weapons to Kingman, Arizona and later selling them at gun shows.

Like his alleged avenger McVeigh, Branch Davidian leader David Koresh frequented gun shows. The St. Petersburg Times reported that Koresh purchased a large quantity of the weapons stockpiled at Mount Carmel (the Branch Davidian compound in Waco, Texas) from Hewitt Handguns, a Texas gun dealership operated by Karen Kilpatrick with Henry McMahon. Koresh had picked up their business card at a Texas gun show. Hewitt Handguns' licensed place of business was McMahon's home, and the Times reported that Kilpatrick and McMahon "did business mostly on weekends traveling from gun show to gun show." According to the Times, from 1990 to 1992, Kilpatrick and McMahon sold Koresh approximately 225 guns and 100,000 rounds of ammunition. The article noted, "Until someone told federal agents they were arming a cult leader, they reported these sales to nobody. By law, they were not required to do so."

In testimony before the 1995 House Judiciary Committee during hearings investigating federal actions at Waco, author Dick Reavis asserted that Koresh not only was a buyer at gun shows—he was a seller. Reavis testified that "in late 1991 he [Koresh] began buying guns and studying armaments....Within a few months, Koresh and a handful of associates were not only buying but also selling goods at the shows."

The Militia Movement

In the 1990s, festering anti-government hysteria received validation from the National Rifle Association. The NRA bombarded gun owners with direct mail calling federal law enforcement personnel "jackbooted thugs" and warning readers that it was only a matter of time before President Clinton "pushes legislation that takes away from our freedoms and creates a police state."

With the NRA providing the motive, gun shows offered the means for disaffected gun owners to get involved with the militia movement. William Pierce—author of the Turner Diaries, the "Bible" of the militia movement—has observed that "gun shows provide a natural recruiting environment. Many more are being held now than ever before, and many more people are attending them."

As anti-government activity by militias and other extremists has grown, so has the awareness that gun shows are not only a key source for firearms and other material, but are a town square where extremists can gather information, make contacts, and mingle with the like-minded. Gun shows are often nothing less than Tupperware® parties for criminals.

The importance of gun shows to the militia movement can be seen in the Free Militia's Field Manual: Principles Justifying the Arming and Organizing of a Militia. In a section on "Secrecy and Security in the Free Militia," readers are warned that "gun show" is one of the 21 "topics and words you should stay away from when talking openly in public or on the phone."

In the December 1995 Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, Dan S.—an undercover investigative journalist who had been an infiltrator in the extremist movement for 12 years—spoke about the role of gun shows for the militia movement:

Another gateway into the militia subculture, which leaped into the spotlight after the Oklahoma City bombing, was the nation's vast meshwork of gun shows with its thriving commerce in weapons, paramilitary paraphernalia and anti-government invective. `Gun shows are huge in the movement,' Dan acknowledged. `They're very popular in the heartland, and you can't go into one without getting the literature. They're a key dissemination point.'

"Truck Loads of Parts Are Readily Available

Gun shows have also become a primary source for military hardware stolen from U.S. military installations. This has become prevalent enough to be addressed in the mainstream publications of the firearms industry. An article in the March/April 1996 issue of Shooting Sports Retailer asked the question, "Are gun dealers in trouble?" The article noted a shift in gun show fare from antiques and collectibles to military parts:

In their infancy, gun shows were usually a place to go when looking for antique and collectable firearms. Some of them are still that way. But many modern gun shows seem to be more `military armory' than `old west,' and a growing number of sellers are non-store dealers.

In November 1993, the Senate Committee on Governmental Affairs conducted a hearing, "Gun Violence: Do Stolen Military Parts Play a Role?" The hearing explored the findings of a November 1993 report from the Government Accounting Office (GAO), Small Arms Parts: Poor Controls Invite Widespread Theft. The GAO report had been undertaken at the request of Senator John Glenn (D-OH), then-chairman of the committee, to investigate reports of inadequate control by the Department of Defense over its inventory of small arms parts. The GAO found that these deficiencies allowed large-scale theft and that the stolen material was widely available at gun shows across the country. GAO personnel were able to purchase stolen military parts at gun shows in each of the six states they visited, and at 13 of the 15 gun shows they visited. At almost every gun show, GAO staff also found 30-round M-16 magazine clips in government packaging. In five states, GAO personnel were able to purchase all of the parts necessary to convert a semiautomatic AR-15 assault rifle into a fully automatic M-16 machine gun.

The Committee on Governmental Affairs hearing delved into who purchases stolen military parts and how the parts are filtered into the general—and often criminal—population. Michael Vaughn, detective supervisor for the Los Angeles Police Department and a witness at the Senate hearing, confirmed that many of these weapons and parts are available at gun shows:

We recently monitored a gun show where enough parts can be purchased to assemble the M-16 automatic rifle and Colt M 1911 45 caliber semiautomatic pistol, as well as bombs and booby traps. Many of these parts are still packaged in military crates, original Cosmoline packaging, and available in unbelievable quantities. Virtually truck loads of parts are readily available for purchase. When you go to these gun shows or you travel to swap meets, you can virtually see just about any military hardware available.


The dangers and problems associated with gun shows were well known in 1986 when Congress voted to pass McClure-Volkmer. Yet in spite of this, the National Rifle Association and its congressional supporters moved to pass a measure that would increase the number of gun shows and create a raft of new law enforcement problems, above and beyond the well-documented problems that already existed. To argue that the bill's effects could not have been predicted is not credible. The most cursory reading reveals that McClure-Volkmer was certain to multiply the number of gun shows and the number of people allowed to participate in them.

The most effective approach to remedying the law enforcement problems presented by gun shows would be to ban them. Gun shows could be effectively banned by reinstating the prohibition forbidding dealers to sell from any location other than their licensed place of business and requiring that all sales by a private individual be consummated by a licensed dealer. Short of banning gun shows, many restrictions and requirements could be imposed to greatly reduce the shows' role in criminal gun trafficking.

On the federal level

Limit gun show participation to licensed dealers and step up enforcement of all existing requirements regarding posting of license, recordkeeping, etc. This would eliminate confusion regarding which sellers must complete the federal paperwork and abide by waiting periods and background checks and would address the problem of licensees competing with non-licensees by engaging in illegal transactions.

Require that Federal Firearms License holders who participate at gun shows must notify ATF when they engage in business away from their licensed premises, and require that the location and date of the gun show and number and types of guns sold at the show be reported to ATF. (This requirement could likely be promulgated by ATF under current law.)

To facilitate the tracing of firearms transferred at gun shows, require that all firearm sales at gun shows be recorded on a separate version of the federal Form 4473. The form should include the name, location, and date of the gun show. (This requirement could likely be instituted by ATF administratively.)

Amend the definition of "engaged in the business" to close the loophole that allows sales from a personal collection in supposed "pursuit of a hobby." One option could be to disallow such sales at gun shows altogether.

Grant ATF interim powers such as license suspension, civil penalties, or offers of monetary settlement. Currently, ATF's enforcement tools are limited to either revoking or failing to renew a license.

Limit the type of weapons sold at gun shows. Prohibitions on the sale of assault weapons, handguns, and weapons regulated under the National Firearms Act (e.g. machine guns, silencers, sawed-off rifles and shotguns), would reduce the shows' appeal to criminals and illegal traffickers.

Strictly enforce the prohibitions on the sale of U.S. military hardware at gun shows. In this area, gun show organizers and promoters could play a key role in reducing distribution outlets for stolen military material. Stepped up surveillance of shows by local, state, and federal law enforcement targeting the sale of stolen military hardware is called for.

On the state or local level

State or local authorities could require that all sales made by private individuals at gun shows be reported to local law enforcement agencies on a standardized form.

Communities could limit the number of gun shows held in their areas. Reducing the volume of shows occurring each year would aid enforcement authorities and reduce the opportunity for criminal trafficking.

State and local authorities could also require certification of gun show organizers and promoters. Requirements could include: keeping accurate records of all gun show participants selling firearms; showing proof that the organization carries adequate theft and liability insurance; and, showing proof that adequate steps are being taken to ensure that all sellers are complying with applicable federal, state, and local laws.

As on the federal level, the type of weapons sold at gun shows could be limited by a state or community. Prohibitions on the sale of assault weapons, handguns, and weapons regulated under the National Firearms Act (e.g. machine guns, silencers, sawed-off rifles and shotguns), would help reduce the shows' appeal to criminals and illegal traffickers.




  All contents © 2000 Violence Policy Center


The Violence Policy Center is a national non-profit educational foundation that conducts research on violence in America and works to develop violence-reduction policies and proposals. The Center examines the role of firearms in America, conducts research on firearms violence, and explores new ways to decrease firearm-related death and injury.