Gun-Control Advocates Drop 'Gun Show Loophole' Talking Point

Gun-control advocates are instead focusing on universal background checks and closing the private-sales loophole. Here's why.
by | January 25, 2013

Gun-policy expert Garen Wintemute, presenting at an academic conference in Baltimore earlier this month, flipped through PowerPoint slides from recent visits to gun shows.

The photos showed guys in t-shirts, jeans and baseball caps aiming rifles into the sky, weighing a potential purchase. In another photo, a dealer in a hockey jersey pushed an almost empty baby carriage he’d been using to transport his merchandise.

Wintemute hovered his pointer over a seller, with the price of a rifle scribbled on a piece of paper taped to his chest. Most of the images came from a state fair and Wintemute, an emergency-room physician who has researched gun violence prevention for more than 20 years, said gun shows often get compared to zoos.

“It may be starting to be time for me to draw an analogy between gun shows and museums,” he said. “Today is the day we stop talking about closing the gun-show loophole as the solution to regulating private-party sales.”

The statement might seem jarring at first. Gun shows frequently attract the attention of gun-control advocates because in most states attendees can buy firearms without criminal-history-background checks. It’s part of an exception in federal law that allows private transactions to avoid the stringent requirements applied to licensed dealers. Even this year, some state legislators and a U.S. senator have targeted gun shows in proposed laws.

But in the context of gun-related crimes, Wintemute argues that policymakers shouldn’t focus on gun shows anymore. Not in the era of, a Craigslist-like marketplace for online firearm sales.

In a 2009 report published by the Violence Prevention Research Program at the University of California, Davis, Wintemute said that it’s difficult to know if a crime gun originated at a gun show. Past investigations by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives have found that some people who would have failed a criminal background check bought guns from a private seller. However, the best available evidence suggests that gun shows represent a narrow sliver of overall gun commerce.

Between 4 percent and 9 percent of all gun acquisitions occur at gun shows, according to the Police Foundation’s 1996 National Survey on Private Ownership of Firearms and 2004 National Firearms Survey. Assuming that 40 percent of all gun sales come from private party transactions and unlicensed dealers are responsible for about one-third of all gun-show sales, Wintemute estimated that guns sold at gun shows represent between 3.3 percent and 7.5 percent of all private gun sales.

Firearms purchased at gun shows rarely get used in crimes, according to a fact sheet on gun shows prepared by the National Shooting Sports Foundation, a trade association for the licensed firearms and ammunition industry. The foundation’s proof is a 2001 study from the U.S. Department of Justice concluded that less than 2 percent of state and prison inmates surveyed bought their gun from a gun show or flea market.

Ladd Everitt, a spokesman for the Coalition to Stop Gun Violence, said he thought the gun-show loophole used to be a bigger topic for discussion because the Columbine shooters in 1999 acquired weapons at a gun show.

In Colorado, a grassroots movement against the loophole resulted in a voter-approved initiative in 2000 requiring background checks for all gun show sales. This year Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper is pushing for background checks for all gun sales.

Many advocates of stricter gun laws seem to be dropping the “gun-show loophole” as a talking point this year.

“I think it’s safe to say that it’s always been a much larger problem than just gun shows,” said Lindsay Nichols, a staff attorney with the Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence.

Gun shows have served as popular targets for new proposals because they provide a focal point, she said. Her group, however, advises lawmakers to think bigger.

“We prefer the term the ‘universal-background checks.’ It’s really about requiring universally background checks for all gun sales,” she said.

Proposals by governors or state lawmakers in Maryland, Delaware, Virginia, Colorado, Connecticut and Missouri would require background checks for anyone trying to purchase a firearm, as did New York’s new gun law. President Barack Obama has asked Congress to pass a federal law with the same requirement.

“The era of talking about the gun-show loophole has been closed,” Everitt said. “(But) the conversation hasn’t diminished. It has expanded. We’ve gone beyond where we were in Columbine.”


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