Tuesday, March 22, 2011

on closing the "gun show loophole"

mayoral candidate melina kennedy recently unveiled her plan to combat illegal guns, perhaps the most-talked-about aspect of which is her support for closing the gun show loophole.

though kennedy emphasizes that she's only talking about illegal guns, not legal gun owners, her plan still elicited complaints from the usual suspects. probably the most unconvincing was paul ogden's assertion that "although I've never bought a gun at a gun show, I'm told the "loophole" doesn't exist."

sorry paul, but whoever told you this was either lying or being disingenuous. everyone knows that the loophole exists—they either claim it's not a "loophole" but the law working as planned (that's not a bug; it's a feature!) or they argue that it's not a "gun show" loophole because it's not gun show–specific. abdul goes with the latter:

Melina also wanted to target what she says is a "loophole" in the law that in some instances a criminal can go to an existing gun show and buy a gun with no questions asked and no background check. That's not the entire story. Anyone can buy a gun at a gun show without a background check if they are buying the gun from another person and not a dealer. They can also do it at 86th and Meridian, 62nd and College, 115 W. Washington, 148 E. Market Street or 912 N. Delaware. The gun show is not the issue, in fact according to FBI statistics, less than 1% of guns used in crimes are purchased at gun shows.

Ask any experienced law enforcement officer and he or she will tell you that the gun used in a crime was likely stolen or traded for drugs. No criminal in his right mind is going to walk into a place, full of undercover law enforcement by the way, and buy a gun that can be traced back to him. The real world doesn't operate that way. And if you look at latest shootings in Indianapolis, I don't think the Indy 1500 Gun and Knife Show was responsible for weapons ending up in the hands of criminals.

where to start? let's go in order.

first, yes, the gun show loophole might more accurately be called the "occasional seller loophole"—the law states that, as opposed to licensed firearm dealers, "occasional sellers" (a term which isn't defined) may sell firearms without a background check. this loophole defeats the purpose of requiring background checks at all, but is technically not limited to gun shows. (of course, you need to know how to find someone with guns to sell, which is why they often congregate at... gun shows.)

whether this distinction means anything depends on the wording of the proposed legislation. to be sure, a bill that applied only to gun shows wouldn't completely close the loophole, only constrict it. but a bill that required all purchases to go through a background check regardless of venue (like current laws in california and elsewhere—PDF link, see pps 10–11), would. the proposed federal gun show loophole closing act, supported by kennedy and mayors against illegal guns, only applies to gun shows, but that's hardly melina kennedy's fault. it would still make a dent in illegal gun trafficking.

second, abdul doesn't cite a source for his "FBI statistics" but i eventually tracked them down to this report (PDF) by the DOJ's bureau of justice statistics. this was a study of prisoners about where they acquired their guns. .7% said they bought their guns from gun shows. gun supporters claim this to be proof that gun shows aren't a problem, but this fails to take into account whether the person who sold them the gun got it at a gun show (or the person who sold it to that person, etc). as the ATF explains (PDF link, p17):

Gun shows are also places where buyers can choose to buy from the primary (firearms sold by FFLs) or secondary (firearms resold by unlicensed sellers) firearms markets. Secondhand firearms are far more difficult than new guns for law enforcement officials to trace to the most recent seller. This is because secondhand firearms likely have left the hands of FFLs, who are required to keep records, into the hands of unlicensed persons who are not required to keep records. Even if the secondhand guns are resold to an FFL, they are untraceable, because the trace will effectively end at the last sale in the unbroken chain of licensed sellers. The access to anonymous sales and large numbers of secondhand firearms makes gun shows attractive to criminals.


A prior review of ATF gun show investigations shows that prohibited persons, such as convicted felons and juveniles, do personally buy firearms at gun shows and gun shows are sources of firearms that are trafficked to such prohibited persons. The gun show review found that firearms were diverted at and through gun shows by straw purchasers, unregulated private sellers, and licensed dealers. Felons were associated with selling or purchasing firearms in 46 percent of the gun show investigations. Firearms that were illegally diverted at or through gun shows were recovered in subsequent crimes, including homicide and robbery, in more than a third of the gun show investigations.

furthermore, going back to that BJS study, about 40% said they got their guns from friends or family, and about 5% said they got guns at pawn shops or flea markets. a california-style background check law would apply to all of these. as for the 40% who got their guns from "street/illegal sources", again it's impossible to know how many of those guns might have been bought at gun shows at some point earlier in the supply chain. according to the ATF, around 30% of guns involved in trafficking come from gun shows (see pps 12–13 of that ATF PDF).

third, as for abdul's claim that "no criminal in his right mind" would buy a gun at a gun show "that could be traced to him", i think i've already shown this to be nonsense. the whole point is that guns purchased from unlicensed sellers are untraceable!

to be sure, weapons trafficking takes place at gun shows, and weapons sold at gun shows end up being used to commit crimes. the loophole that allows this to take place is real. melina kennedy and others support a federal law that would partially close this loophole and thus reduce illegal gun trafficking. would she support a stricter bill that requires background checks for all purchases, regardless of venue? that's a question only she can answer... but it's also a moot point if no such bill is in the works.

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