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Gun Shows in America:
Tupperware® Parties for Criminals

In 1986 the National Rifle Association (NRA) unveiled legislation that was nothing less than a pro-gun wish list: "The Firearms Owners Protection Act." Commonly known as "McClure-Volkmer" for its congressional sponsors, then-Senator James McClure (R-ID) and Representative Harold Volkmer (D-MO), it was designed to weaken the primary federal law regulating commerce in firearms and ammunition, the Gun Control Act of 1968. McClure-Volkmer was signed into law by President Reagan on May 19, 1986.

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 dramatic increase is largely the consequence of two little-noticed changes McClure-Volkmer made in federal law that have increased the number of gun shows and allowed illegal sales to flourish. The first change made it legal for Federal Firearms License (FFL) holders to operate at gun shows. The second 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.

How Many Gun Shows?

Since no recordkeeping requirements apply, no hard numbers exist as to how many gun shows took place before the passage of McClure-Volkmer—the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms (ATF) has no statistics on the number of gun shows prior to 1986. Estimates vary widely as to how many now occur each year. ATF estimates that there are 2,000 gun shows held in the United States each year. However, in contrast, the National Association of Arms Shows puts the estimate at more than 100 gun shows every weekend for a total of 5,200 annually. The Association also estimates that more than five million people attend gun shows each year, generating billions of dollars in sales.

To obtain some reliable estimate of the effect of McClure-Volkmer on the prevalence of gun shows, the Violence Policy Center conducted a series of interviews with various federal, state, and local law enforcement representatives 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 observations on whether the number of gun shows in their area had increased or decreased. Ten of the 14—or 71 percent—stated that there has been an increase in the volume 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 their 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 number of gun shows has increased significantly as a result of McClure-Volkmer, and that this increase has 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.

Licensed Dealers versus "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 were required to follow strict sales criteria under federal law: e.g., federal sales forms, age restrictions, background checks, waiting periods, etc. 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. These factors combined to create a volatile mix, making gun shows a favored venue for unscrupulous sellers and criminal purchasers. Illegal transactions usually occur in one of three ways: 1) straw-man sales; 2) out-of-state sales; and, 3) sales from "personal" collections.

Where the Famous and the Infamous Shop

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.

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. 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. Like his alleged avenger McVeigh, Branch Davidian leader David Koresh also 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 Federal Firearms License holder Henry McMahon. Koresh had picked up their business card at a Texas gun show.

While McVeigh and Koresh may be two of the best known gun show customers, they are other lesser known but equally discomforting attendees. According to the January 23, 1995 issue of National Review, convicted serial killer Thomas Dillon began his murderous career by killing more than 500 dogs and cats, then moved on to humans—allegedly killing at least five men. In 1989 he announced to a friend that he had quit killing animals and began inviting the friend to attend gun shows with him.

Gun Shows and the Militia

Author William Pierce 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." Pierce's opinion carries more weight than most. He is the author of the infamous Turner Diaries, the anti-government screed described as the Bible of the militia movement and believed to have inspired Timothy McVeigh in his alleged bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City. 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."

"Truck Loads of Parts Are Readily Available"

Gun shows have become a primary source for military hardware stolen from U.S. military installations. In November 1993 the Senate Committee on Governmental Affairs conducted a hearing exploring the findings of a November 1993 report from the Government Accounting Office (GAO) titled, "Small Arms Parts: Poor Controls Invite Widespread Theft." 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.

This fact sheet is taken from the July 1996 Violence Policy Center study Gun Shows in America: Tupperware® Parties for Criminals.

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