Gun Shows in America
Tupperware® Parties for Criminals
Section Three: Changes Seen at Gun Shows as the Result of McClure-Volkmer
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
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—
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.
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 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 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:
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—
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...."
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:
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
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:
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."
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