Federal Law on Gun Shows

Posted on May 18, 2012

Federal law defines “gun show” as a “function sponsored by any national, State, or local organization, devoted to the collection, competitive use, or other sporting use of firearms, or an organization or association that sponsors functions devoted to the collection, competitive use, or other sporting use of firearms in the community.”1 A federally licensed firearms dealer (FFL) may conduct business at a gun show or event located in the same state specified on the license.2 FFLs must conduct background checks on prospective purchasers and maintain sales records of transactions at gun shows.3

Persons who are not federally licensed firearms dealers are also permitted to transfer firearms at gun shows, however. Because unlicensed, private sellers are exempt from the federal background check requirement, this creates a loophole (the “private sale” loophole) that enables certain categories of persons prohibited from purchasing or possessing firearms – such as felons, domestic violence perpetrators and mentally ill individuals – to obtain them. Likewise, private sellers at gun shows (and elsewhere) are not required to maintain records of sales. Additional information on the “private sale” loophole is contained in the section on Private Sales.

Gun shows are a popular venue for private sales. A 1999 ATF study found that 25% to 50% of gun show vendors are unlicensed.4 Another ATF study reviewed over 1,500 ATF investigations and concluded that gun shows are a “major trafficking channel,” associated with approximately 26,000 firearms diverted from legal to illegal commerce.5 According to the study, gun shows rank second to corrupt dealers as a source for illegally trafficked firearms.6

ATF does not have a formal gun show enforcement program, and conducts investigations of gun shows only when it has law enforcement intelligence that illegal firearms activity is likely to occur.7 From 2004 – 2006, ATF conducted 202 investigative operations at 195 guns shows, or roughly 3% of the gun shows held nationwide during this period. These operations resulted in 121 arrests and the seizure of 5,345 firearms.8 Offenses included convicted felons buying guns, straw purchases, unlicensed individuals selling firearms as a business, FFLs failing to document transfers or conduct background checks on purchasers, and persons possessing prohibited firearms, including machine guns and sawed-off shotguns.9

Click here to view additional information about gun shows, including background information and state and local laws on the topic.

  1. 27 C.F.R. § 478.100(b). []
  2. 27 C.F.R. § 478.100(a)(1). []
  3. 27 C.F.R. § 478.100(c). []
  4. U.S. Department of Justice & Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms, U.S. Department of the Treasury, Gun Shows: Brady Checks and Crime Gun Traces 4 (Jan. 1999). []
  5. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms, U.S. Department of the Treasury, Following the Gun: Enforcing Federal Laws Against Firearms Traffickers xi, 1, 12 (June 2000). []
  6. Id. at 12. []
  7. Office of the Inspector General, U.S. Department of Justice, The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives’ Investigative Operations at Gun Shows iii (June 2007). []
  8. Id. at iv-v. []
  9. Id. at v. []