Buy Firearms Without a Background Check at a Gun Show
Americans love their guns, and we can sleep soundly knowing that federal law keeps the legal firearm trade from supplying weapons to criminals, thugs, and gangsters, right?
Maybe not. Thanks to a loophole in the law, even a felon with a rap sheet a mile long can walk into a gun show and walk out with his or her choice of firearm, free from the burden of a background check.
The 1993 Brady Law, named after Ronald Regan’s press secretary, James Brady, who was injured in the assassination attempt on the president in 1981, requires all purchasers of firearms to be put through a federal background check. People who have a felony conviction or certain other types of criminal records are banned by law from buying guns, along with people who have restraining orders against them, people with histories of serious mental illness and those who fall into a few other categories.
According to the Brady foundation, which advocates for stronger gun laws, 1.9 million prohibited buyers have been turned away because of background checks since the law’s implementation in 1994.
However, by virtue of the so-called “gun show loophole,” as many as of 40 percent of gun buyers don’t have to pass through a background check at all. What’s the loophole? Background checks are only required for people who buy from federally licensed firearm dealers. People who make “occasional” sales in their home state, such as at a gun show or in a classified ad, are not required to have a license or comply with the Brady law.
Seventeen states do require background checks for handgun purchases even at gun shows, among them seven that require checks for any kind of firearm purchase, including rifles and shotguns.
“The gun show loophole is a symptom of a larger problem, which is that in 33 states, you can buy firearms without a background check,” says Josh Horwitz, executive director of the Coalition to Stop Gun Violence. “When you’re someone who sells at gun shows, or by placing an ad in the classified section, you’re not required to have a license nor do background checks.”
The law states that a license is required for people “engaged in the business” of dealing guns. “There’s no bright line,” Horwitz says. “It’s not based on the amount of firearms. So the engagement of business standard is somewhat amorphous and can be difficult to prosecute, so that there’s a lot of selling going on from people for whom it may not be their prime occupation, but make money on it, even on a regular basis, and do so without a background check.”
Whether gun shows and other private sales should continue to be exempt is one of the bigger controversies raging in the world of gun laws. Those who want to close the loophole point to the fact that weapons used in several high-profile incidents were traced back to purchases at gun shows, including the guns used by Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold in the Columbine High School massacre, and a good portion of the arsenal acquired by Branch Davidian cult leader David Koresh.
The NRA and other pro-gun organizations defend the loophole, claiming it is not a loophole at all but simply private citizens engaging in small commerce, just like a neighbor agreeing to sell to another neighbor over a backyard fence.
Gun regulation advocates dismiss the argument. “There are a lot of examples of regulation of private commerce,” Horwitz says. “You can’t transfer prescription drugs to anyone even if it’s your property. If you have a car, you have to change the registration.”
There were bills introduced in 2009 in the U.S. Senate and House of Representatives that would extend background checks to all firearm purchases nationwide, closing the loophole, but they were never brought to a vote. Following a year that saw a number of horrific rampage shootings, including the Aurora movie theater massacre and the recent Sandy Hook slaughter, advocates are hoping the climate is ripe for reform, with talk of reinstating a federal assault weapon ban and other restrictions in the air.
“We think the number one priority is to require background checks on all gun sales,” Horwitz says.