At gun shows, both official firearms retailers and private individuals sell and trade firearms to large numbers of potential buyers and traders. These gun transfers are not regulated by law in most states.
This lack of regulation is called the “gun show loophole.” It is praised by gun rights advocates but denounced by gun control supporters, as the loophole allows persons who would not be able to pass a Brady Act gun buyer background check to obtain firearms.
Gun Show Background
The federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives has estimated that 5,000 gun shows are held annually in the United States. These shows attract tens of thousands of attendees and result in the transfer of thousands of firearms.
Between 1968 and 1986, gun dealers were prohibited from selling firearms at gun shows. The Gun Control Act of 1968 barred Federal Firearms License holders from making gun show sales by ordering that all sales must take place at the dealer’s place of business. The Firearm Owners Protection Act of 1986 reversed that portion of the Gun Control Act. The ATF now estimates that as many as 75% of weapons sold at gun shows are sold by licensed dealers.
Gun Show Loophole Issue
The “gun show loophole” refers to the fact that most states do not require background checks for firearms sold or traded at gun shows by private individuals. Federal law requires background checks on guns sold by federally licensed dealers only.
The federal Gun Control Act of 1968 defined “private sellers” as anyone who sold fewer than four firearms during any 12-month period. However, the 1986 Firearm Owners Protection Act deleted that restriction and loosely defined private sellers as individuals who do not rely on gun sales as the principal way of obtaining their livelihood. Proponents of unregulated gun show sales say that there is no gun show loophole—gun owners are simply selling or trading guns at the shows as they would at their residences.
Federal legislation has attempted to put an end to the so-called loophole by requiring that all gun show transactions take place through FFL dealers. A 2009 bill attracted several co-sponsors in both the U.S. House of Representatives and the U.S. Senate, but Congress ultimately failed to take up consideration of the legislation. Similar bills in 2011, 2013, 2015, and 2019 met the same fate.
Gun Show Laws by State
Several states and the District of Columbia have their own gun show background check requirements. As of January 2021, 14 states require some kind of background checks at the point of sale and/or permits for all transfers, including purchases from unlicensed sellers. They are:
- New Jersey
- New Mexico
- New York
- Rhode Island
Background checks are required for handguns only in:
In 33 states, there are currently no laws—federal or state—regulating firearms sales between private individuals at gun shows. However, even in states where background checks of private sales are not required by law, organizations hosting the gun show may require them as a matter of policy. In addition, private sellers are free to have a third-party, federally licensed gun dealer run background checks even though they may not be required by law.
Attempts to Close the Loophole
Federal “gun show loophole” bills were introduced in nine congressional sessions from 2001 to 2019—two in 2001, two in 2004, one in 2005, one in 2007, two in 2009, two in 2011, and one in 2013, 2015, and 2019. None of them passed.
In 2015, 2017, and 2019, Rep. Carolyn Maloney (D-New York) introduced gun show loophole acts requiring criminal background checks on all firearms transactions occurring at gun shows. None of the measures became law.
The Bloomberg Investigation
In 2009, New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, founder of the Mayors Against Illegal Guns group, stirred controversy and stimulated the gun show debate when the city hired private investigators to target gun shows in the unregulated states of Ohio, Nevada, and Tennessee.
According to a report released by Bloomberg’s office, 22 of 33 private sellers sold guns to undercover investigators who informed them that they probably could not pass a background check, while 16 of 17 licensed sellers allowed straw purchases by the undercover investigators. A straw purchase involves an individual who is prohibited from purchasing a firearm recruiting someone else to purchase a gun for him.