Gun shows are events dedicated to the display and sale of firearms and firearm-related accessories. Often held at public venues such as fairgrounds or civic centers, gun shows operate as temporary markets for the transfer of firearms, and they are largely unregulated. Unlicensed individuals frequently sell guns at gun shows without background checks, retailers often sell firearms to “straw purchasers” (individuals buying a gun on behalf of someone else), and assault weapons are popular.1 Guns used in several horrific events, including the Columbine High School and 101 California Street massacres and the 2010 Pentagon shooting, had been purchased at gun shows.2
How Common Are Gun Shows?
A 2007 report by the Office of the Inspector General of the U.S. Department of Justice found that the number of gun shows in the U.S. each year ranges from 2,000 to 5,200.3 A review of two publications in which gun shows were advertised in 2007 found that there were at least 2,377 gun shows in that year.4 These events typically attract several thousand people, and a single gun show can have sales of over 1,000 firearms over the course of one weekend.5
What Happens at Gun Shows?
A 2007 study compared gun shows in California, which regulates gun shows and private firearm transfers, with gun shows in states with little regulation. The study found that at gun shows in states with less regulation:
- Straw purchases were more common.
- Armed attendees selling guns were more common.
- Vendors were more likely to sell assault weapons and 50-caliber rifles.6
Similarly, a study by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms & Explosives (ATF) in June 2000 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.7 According to the study, gun shows rank second to corrupt dealers as a source for illegally trafficked firearms.8 Another study explained that, while violent criminals do not buy most of their guns directly from gun shows, gun shows are “the critical moment in the chain of custody for many guns, the point at which they move from the somewhat-regulated legal market to the shadowy, no-questions-asked illegal market.”9
What About Background Checks?
Gun shows are a popular venue for “private sales” in which unlicensed sellers can sell guns without background checks. A 1999 ATF study found that 25 to 50% of gun-show vendors are unlicensed.10 These private sellers frequently rent table space at gun shows and carry or post “Private Sale” signs, signaling that purchases require no paperwork, no background check, no waiting period and no recordkeeping.11
A 2009 undercover investigation by the City of New York at gun shows in Nevada, Ohio, and Tennessee “observed many private sellers doing brisk business at gun shows.”12 The investigators tested whether firearms dealers and private sellers would conduct what appeared to be illegal transactions, and found that:
- When investigators claimed that they “probably” could not pass background checks, 19 of 30 private sellers (63%) were still willing to complete the firearm sale.13
- When investigators approached licensed dealers and appeared to conduct straw purchases on behalf of prohibited people, 16 of 17 dealers (94%) were willing to complete these transactions.14
In a subsequent investigation—conducted at a Phoenix gun show just a few weeks after the Tucson massacre—an investigator successfully purchased guns from two private sellers despite informing both that he “probably couldn’t pass” a background check.15
A September 2010 report by Mayors Against Illegal Guns found that states that do not require background checks for all handgun sales at gun shows are the source of crime guns recovered in other states at a rate more than two and a half times greater than states that do.16 None of the ten states that are most frequently the sources of crime guns when population is taken into account require background checks at gun shows.17
For more information about ways to address the loophole for unlicensed gun sales, including sales at gun shows, see our toolkit, Commonsense Solutions: State Laws to Expand Background Checks for Unlicensed Gun Sales.
How Common Are Crimes at Gun Shows?
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.18 From 2004 to 2006, ATF conducted 202 investigative operations at 195 guns shows—roughly 3% of the gun shows held nationwide during this period. These operations resulted in 121 arrests and the seizure of 5,345 firearms.19 Offenses included:
- Convicted felons buying guns
- Straw purchases
- Unlicensed individuals selling firearms as a business
- Dealers failing to document transfers or conducting background checks on purchasers
- Persons possessing prohibited firearms, including machine guns and sawed-off shotguns20
A report by the Government Accountability Office regarding gun trafficking to Mexico also confirmed that many traffickers buy guns at gun shows.21
Polling Shows Support for Background Checks at Gun Shows
The public strongly supports laws imposing background checks on prospective gun purchasers at gun shows. A January 2011 poll found that 89% of people polled favor laws requiring all firearm purchasers at gun shows to pass a criminal background check.22 A February 2011 poll found that over 82% of poll respondents, including more than 77% of gun owners, in the bellwether states of Arizona, Colorado, Indiana, Virginia and Ohio support laws requiring all sellers at gun shows to run background checks.23
Summary of Federal Law
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.”24 A federally licensed firearms dealer may conduct business at a gun show or event located in the same state specified on the license.25 Dealers must conduct background checks on prospective purchasers and maintain sales records of transactions at gun shows.26
However, people who are not federally licensed firearms dealers are also permitted to transfer firearms at gun shows. As described above and in our summary on Universal Background Checks unlicensed, private sellers are not required to conduct background checks on purchasers or maintain records of sales.
A Change in the Law
The explosion of gun shows nationwide is a relatively recent phenomenon that experts attribute to changes in federal law in the mid-1980s. From the adoption of the Gun Control Act of 1968 until 1984, in fact, licensed dealers were prohibited from completing the transfer of guns at gun shows. As one report explains, “Dealers were allowed to exhibit at gun shows, but actual sales had to be consummated at their place of business.”27
Following the adoption of an ATF regulation that allowed licensed dealers to temporarily operate at gun shows in 1984, Congress passed the so-called Firearm Owners’ Protection Act (FOPA) in 1986. FOPA enabled to dealers to “conduct business temporarily at a location other than the location specified on the license” for a gun show.28 The act also weakly defined the “engaged in the business” threshold that determines whether a firearms seller must be federally licensed, increasing the number of unlicensed, private sellers.29 According to one researcher, “the result [of FOPA] appears to have been a rapid increase in both the number and size of gun shows during the 1980s and 1990s.”30
Summary of State Law
General state laws that regulate the sale of firearms or ammunition, such as waiting periods, recordkeeping, and background check laws, still apply at gun shows. Five states (Connecticut, Colorado, Illinois, New York, and Oregon) have laws expressly addressing background checks at gun shows, although broader laws also apply. As described below, twelve states specifically regulate gun shows in other ways, with California having the most comprehensive regulation of gun shows.31
Background Check Requirements at Gun Shows
The most comprehensive approach to ensuring that sales are only made to eligible purchasers is through a requirement for universal background checks prior to all firearm transfers wherever the transfer takes place. Eleven states and the District of Columbia require a background check before any firearm is purchased from any seller, either by requiring the seller to conduct a background check at the point of sale, or by requiring the seller to verify that the purchaser has a permit issued after a background check. Six other states do the same, but only for handguns. For further details, see our summary on Universal Background Checks .
Illinois is among the eleven states mentioned above that generally require a background check before a gun sale; more specifically, in Illinois, any firearm seller must verify the validity of the purchaser’s Firearm Owner’s Identification Card. Transfers at gun shows are exempted from this requirement, however, and Illinois has a separate law for background checks at gun shows. Under this law, unlicensed sellers at gun shows are subject to the same requirement as licensed dealers to contact the State Police directly to conduct a background check on any prospective transferee.32
Colorado, Connecticut, New York, and Oregon are also among the twelve states mentioned above that now require a background check at the point of sale of any firearm. In those four states, pre-existing laws that required background checks at gun shows also remain on the books. Connecticut simply refers to its requirement that sellers conduct background checks through law enforcement and confirms that it applies at gun shows.33 In Colorado and New York, sellers must request background checks through licensed dealers, who are required to process the transfer (although they may charge a fee) and gun show promoters must ensure that a dealer is available at a gun show to do this.34 In Oregon, a seller at a gun show may choose to conduct the background check through a licensed dealer for a fee or by contacting the State Police directly.35
In 2016, Virginia enacted a law requiring the State Police to be available at gun shows to conduct background checks on purchasers or transferees of firearms at the request of the parties to the transaction. This law does not require the parties to request these background checks.36
Other State Gun Show Regulations
The following 12 states impose additional requirements on gun shows:
These laws fall within the following categories:
Safety and security requirements
In 1999, California enacted the nation’s broadest legislation to increase oversight at gun shows. California’s statute specifies that gun show promoters must obtain a certificate of eligibility from the state Department of Justice following a background check. Promoters are also required to:
- Prepare security plans for gun shows and notify state and local law enforcement of those plans.
- Certify that they will comply with all applicable federal, state and local laws.
- Obtain liability insurance in an amount not less than $1 million.
- Ensure that all firearms brought into the shows are cleared of ammunition and tagged for identification purposes.
- Prohibit anyone under age 18 from entering unless accompanied by a parent, grandparent or legal guardian.37
Licensing of gun show vendors
Maryland requires all vendors of handguns and assault weapons to possess a valid state dealer license or, alternatively, a temporary transfer permit (requiring a background check on the permittee) for persons displaying a handgun or assault weapon at five or fewer shows per year.38
Several states impose various types of recordkeeping requirements on gun show promoters and/or sellers.39 For record-keeping requirements that apply to all sellers, including sellers at gun shows, see our summary on Maintaining Records of Gun Sales. Colorado,40 Illinois, New York, and Oregon specifically require that records be maintained of all firearm transactions that occurred at gun shows. Illinois requires the transferor to maintain a record for 10 years;41 New York requires the dealers who process the transfers to retain records for 10 years;42 Oregon calls for records to be kept by the transferor for 5 years.43
Notice to law enforcement
Virginia requires “firearms show” promoters to give notice of each show to state and local police at least 30 days prior to the show. Promoters must maintain a list of all exhibitors for the duration of the show and transmit a copy of that list to law enforcement within five days of the show’s completion.44 Connecticut also requires gun show promoters to give local law enforcement at least 30 days’ notice of a gun show.45 Alabama requires gun show promoters to pay the state’s license tax, provide the county and municipality with a list of participants, and collect and remit any applicable state or local sales taxes from participants.46
California provides an extensive list of warnings that must be posted in a readily visible location at each public entrance to a gun show. Promoters must also post, in a readily visible location at each entrance to the parking lot of the gun show, a sign that states, “The transfer of firearms on the parking lot of this facility is a crime.”47 Maine requires the posting of a sign at all entrances of an organized gun show regarding child access to firearms.48 Colorado, New York, and Oregon require the posting of certain signs regarding their background check requirements.49
Special event regulations
Gun shows may be subject to state laws and regulations regarding special events generally. In Oklahoma, for example, gun shows are explicitly mentioned as an example of a “special event,” so that the gun show promoters must ensure that sales taxes are paid in accordance with state law.50 Tennessee law is similar.51
Selected Local Law
In 1980, Omaha, Nebraska enacted an ordinance regulating “firearms exhibitions.”52 Under the ordinance, any person promoting or sponsoring a firearms exhibition must first obtain a local permit. Applicants for such a permit must have a federal firearms dealer license.
A firearms exhibition promoter or sponsor must provide: (1) security personnel at all exhibition entrances, who must ensure that firearms brought into the exhibition are not loaded; (2) 24-hour security at the exhibition site; (3) written notice to all exhibitors stating that all laws and ordinances must be observed; and (4) the names and addresses of all exhibitors to the chief of police. Exhibitors must record all firearms transferred or acquired, must retain these records for two years, and must make this information available to law enforcement.
Omaha also prohibits the exhibition or sale of ammunition “in an assembled state” at firearms exhibitions. Firearms exhibitions in Omaha may not last more than three consecutive days.
Key Legislative Elements
The features listed below are intended to provide a framework from which policy options may be considered. A jurisdiction considering new legislation should consult with counsel.
- For all firearm transfers, private sellers at gun shows are subject to similar requirements as licensed dealers, including background checks and recordkeeping requirements:
- The most comprehensive option requires all firearm transfers to be conducted through licensed dealers at the point of sale, so that background checks will be completed on all purchasers (including purchases from unlicensed sellers), and sales records will be maintained (California, Colorado, Delaware, District of Columbia, New York).
- If the jurisdiction does not require that all firearm transfers be conducted through licensed dealers, private sellers at gun shows are required to:
- Conduct background checks through a central law enforcement agency (or licensed dealer) that has access to federal and state databases of prohibited purchasers (Oregon).
- Retain records of all firearm transfers for a lengthy period.
- Report all such transfers to state and local law enforcement.53
- If gun show vendors are not licensed dealers, they are required to obtain a permit, including a background check, to sell any weapons (Maryland requires a permit but only for vendors of handguns and assault weapons).
- Gun show promoters are required to obtain a permit (California, Omaha) after undergoing a background check (California), and/or be a licensed dealer (Omaha).
- Safety and security requirements are imposed on the promoter, requiring, for example, that:
- A list of exhibitors is maintained and provided to law enforcement (Virginia, Omaha).
- There is a security plan and state and local law enforcement are notified of the plan (California).
- All firearms brought into the shows are cleared of ammunition (California, Omaha) and tagged for identification purposes (California).
- Entry into gun shows by minors is restricted (California).
- The promoter has a specified minimum level of liability insurance (California).
- There are trained law enforcement personnel on site (Omaha).
- Garen J. Wintemute, Inside Gun Shows: What Goes On When Everybody Thinks Nobody’s Watching (2009), at http://www.ucdmc.ucdavis.edu/newsroom/releases/wintemute9-2009/index.html. ⤴︎
- Dan Luzadder, Loophole protects Columbine ‘witness’, Rocky Mountain News (Oct. 3, 1999), at http://denver.rockymountainnews.com/shooting/1003robyn.shtml; Merrill v. Navegar, Inc., 26 Cal. 4th 465 (2001); Josh White et al., Pentagon shooter’s gun had many previous owners, Wash. Post, March 15, 2010, at http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2010/03/14/AR2010031401254.html. For additional examples of crime guns purchased at gun shows, see Inside Gun Shows, supra, note 1, at 1-24 – 1-25; City of New York, Gun Show Undercover 12 (Oct. 2009), at http://www.gunshowundercover2009.org/. ⤴︎
- Office of the Inspector General, U.S. Department of Justice, The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives’ Investigative Operations at Gun Shows i (June 2007), at http://www.justice.gov/oig/reports/ATF/e0707/final.pdf. ⤴︎
- Inside Gun Shows; supra, note 1, at 2-3. ⤴︎
- The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives’ Investigative Operations at Gun Shows, supra note 3, at 6; 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 4-7 (Jan. 1999). ⤴︎
- Garen J. Wintemute, Gun Shows Across a Multistate American Gun Market: Observational Evidence of the Effects of Regulatory Policies, 13 Inj. Prevention 150, 154-55 (2007). Note that California bans assault weapons and 50 caliber rifles. ⤴︎
- 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), at http://www.mayorsagainstillegalguns.org/downloads/pdf/Following_the_Gun%202000.pdf. ⤴︎
- Id. at 12. ⤴︎
- Center for American Progress, The Gun Debate 1 Year After Newtown: Assessing Six Key Claims About Gun Background Checks (Dec. 2013), at http://www.americanprogress.org/issues/guns-crime/report/2013/12/13/80795/the-gun-debate-1-year-after-newtown/. ⤴︎
- Gun Shows: Brady Checks and Crime Gun Traces, supra note 5, at 4. ⤴︎
- Gun Shows Across a Multistate American Gun Market, supra, note 6, at 154-155. ⤴︎
- Gun Show Undercover, supra, note 2, at 24. In an ATF survey about illegal conduct at gun shows, some licensed dealers “expressed frustration that unlicensed persons were able to sell to buyers without any paperwork (and advertise this fact), leaving the [licensed dealer] at a competitive disadvantage.” Gun Shows: Brady Checks and Crime Gun Traces, supra note 5, at 18. Private sellers’ competitive advantage over dealers also includes the fact that “they operate with little or no overhead other than the minimal fee to rent their tables.” Gun Show Undercover, supra, note 2, at 26. The City of New York’s investigation further noted that: “In addition, none of the private sellers who exhibited indicia of being illegally ‘engaged in the business’ collected sales tax, even though all three states involved in this investigation require taxes on frequent, profit-oriented sales. Violation of these laws defrauds state, and often local, governments of revenue. Furthermore, several private sellers used the lack of sales tax as a selling point.” Id. ⤴︎
- Gun Show Undercover, supra note 2, at 16. ⤴︎
- Id at 20. ⤴︎
- City of New York, Gun Show Undercover: Arizona 1 (Jan. 2011), at http://www.gunshowundercover2009.org/18156.html. ⤴︎
- Mayors Against Illegal Guns, Trace the Guns: The Link Between Gun Laws and Interstate Gun Trafficking 14 (Sept. 2010), at http://www.tracetheguns.org/report.pdf. ⤴︎
- Id. ⤴︎
- The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives’ Investigative Operations at Gun Shows, supra note 3, at iii. ⤴︎
- Id. at iv-v. ⤴︎
- Id. at v. ⤴︎
- U.S. Gov’t Accountability Office, Firearms Trafficking: U.S. Efforts to Combat Arms Trafficking to Mexico Face Planning and Coordination Challenges 26-27 (2009), at http://www.gao.gov/new.items/d09709.pdf. ATF has concluded that the increased incidence of gun trafficking into Mexico is influenced by the accessibility of guns in the secondary market, at U.S. gun shows, flea markets and other private sales locations. Statement Before the United States House of Representatives Committee on Foreign Affairs, Subcommittee on the Western Hemisphere by William Hoover, Assistant Dir. for Field Operations of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, ¶ 8 (Feb. 7, 2008), http://foreignaffairs.house.gov/110/hoo020708.htm. ⤴︎
- American Viewpoint/Momentum Analysis, Momentum Analysis & American Viewpoint National Survey (for Mayors Against Illegal Guns) (Jan. 2011) at http://www.mayorsagainstillegalguns.org/downloads/pdf/maig_poll_01_18_2011.pdf. See Dr. Frank Luntz/Word Doctors for Mayors Against Illegal Guns, America’s Gun Owners Support Common Sense Gun Laws 12 (Dec. 2009) at http://www.mayorsagainstillegalguns.org/downloads/pdf/luntz_poll_slides.pdf (finding that 69% of NRA members and 85% of non-NRA member gun owners (85%) support requiring criminal background checks on all gun purchases at gun shows). ⤴︎
- Momentum Analysis, American Viewpoint, Harstad Strategic Research, Bellwether Research & Hart Research Polling for Mayors Against Illegal Guns, Results from Surveys in AZ, CO, IN, VA, OH (Feb. 2011), at http://www.mayorsagainstillegalguns.org/downloads/pdf/poll_slides_2011.pdf. See also Press Release, Mayors Against Illegal Guns, New Polls in Five Bellwether States Show Overwhelming Support to Fix Gun Background Check System (Mar. 2, 2011), at http://www.mayorsagainstillegalguns.org/html/media-center/pr020-11.shtml. ⤴︎
- 27 C.F.R. § 478.100(b). ⤴︎
- 27 C.F.R. § 478.100(a)(1). ⤴︎
- 27 C.F.R. § 478.100(c). ⤴︎
- Violence Policy Center, Gun Shows in America: Tupperware® Parties for Criminals (July 1996), at http://www.vpc.org/studies/tuptwo.htm. ⤴︎
- 18 U.S.C. § 923(j). ⤴︎
- 18 U.S.C. § 921(a)(21)(C). See the summary on Dealer Regulations for more information on this issue. ⤴︎
- Garen J. Wintemute, Inside Gun Shows, supra, note 1, at 1-20. ⤴︎
- New Jersey limits the business of a licensed retail firearms dealer to the building or buildings designated in the license. N.J. Stat. § 2C:58-2(a)(1). An administrative regulation confirms that this law prohibits retail dealers from conducting business at a gun show. N.J. Admin. Code. § 13:54-3.4(e). ⤴︎
- 430 Ill. Comp. Stat. 65/3, 65/3.1; 720 Ill. Comp. Stat. 5/24-3(A)(k), (C)(7). ⤴︎
- Conn. Gen. Stat. § 29-37g. ⤴︎
- Colo. Rev. Stat. §§ 12-26.1-101 – 12-26.1-108; N.Y. Gen. Bus. Law §§ 895 – 897; N.Y. Penal Law § 400.00. Colorado’s law requiring a background check before the sale of a firearm at a gun show was added through a statewide ballot initiative in 2000 in response to the Columbine tragedy and remains on the books. The state’s new law requiring a background check before any private sale was adopted in 2013. The procedures that are required under either of these laws are identical. ⤴︎
- Or. Rev. Stat. §§ 166.432 – 166.441. ⤴︎
- Va. Code Ann. 54.1-4201.2. ⤴︎
- Cal. Penal Code §§ 16800, 26805, 27200-27245, 27300-27415. ⤴︎
- Md. Code Ann., Pub. Safety §§ 5-106, 5-130. ⤴︎
- Federal law requires licensed dealers to maintain firearm sales records indefinitely. 18 U.S.C. § 923(g)(1)(A). ⤴︎
- Colo. Rev. Stat. § 12-26.1-102. ⤴︎
- 430 Ill. Comp. Stat. 65/3(b). ⤴︎
- N.Y. Gen. Bus. Law § 896(c). ⤴︎
- Or. Rev. Stat. §§ 166.438(2), 166.441. ⤴︎
- Va. Code Ann. §§ 54.1-4200, 54.1-4201.1. These requirements do not apply firearms shows held in any town with a population of not less than 1,995 and not more than 2,010, according to the 1990 United States census. Va. Code Ann. § 54.1-4201.1(C). ⤴︎
- Conn. Gen. Stat. § 29-37g. ⤴︎
- Ala. Code § 40-12-143. ⤴︎
- Cal. Pen. Code § 27240. ⤴︎
- Me. Rev. Stat. tit. 15, § 455-A. ⤴︎
- Colo. Rev. Stat. § 12-26.1-104; N.Y. Gen. Bus. Law § 896(a); Or. Rev. Stat. § 166.438(3). ⤴︎
- Okla. Stat. tit. 68, § 1364.2. ⤴︎
- Tenn. Code § 67-4-710. ⤴︎
- Omaha, Nebraska Municipal Code §§ 19-383 – 19-392.2. ⤴︎
- For examples of recordkeeping and reporting requirements see our summary on Maintaining Records of Gun Sales. ⤴︎