At this weekend’s gun show in Hampton, people looking to sell or buy a gun privately — not through a dealer with a Federal Firearms License — could do so legally, like they could at any other gun show in Virginia and most other states.
Gun control groups see this as a loophole that gives people who would not pass a background check the chance to buy guns. Second Amendment advocates, however, argue that gun control won’t prevent people who want to commit crimes from getting a gun, and they say that the number of private sales that happen at a gun show are statistically small compared to the number of purchases made with background checks.
At this weekend’s gun show, held at the Hampton Roads Convention Center, hundreds of guns were on display, as well as hunting rifles, antique weapons and assault rifles. The vast majority — if not nearly all — of the weapons being sold were by licensed gun dealers who had set up tables at the center.
Those dealers are required to have would-be purchasers fill out paperwork and then submit to a federal background check.
Also to be found, however, were a handful of people carrying signs that advertised the specific firearm they were trying to sell. They walked through the building, taking advantage of an assembled customer base to pique a potential buyer’s interest — those sales would not be subject to a background check, although a private seller could have required it, if desired.
The private sale of firearms has long been a debated topic, with roots in the federal passage of the Brady Handgun Violence Prevention Act in 1993.
The act requires people purchasing guns from federally licensed dealers to undergo a background check. And since 1998, those dealers have been able to use a national, instant system that flags prohibited purchasers, such as felons and people convicted of domestic violence.
The sweeping legislation applies to people engaged “in the business of dealing firearms,” allowing people not making their livelihood off of selling guns to sell through the internet, in person-to-person sales or at a gun show without conducting a background check — what some call the “gun show loophole.”
Nine states have established laws that require all sellers to conduct background checks, and gun policy reform groups, such as the Brady Campaign and the Coalition to Stop Gun Violence, continue to push for universal background checks. Conversations surrounding universal background checks have been energized as people discuss measures to curb gun violence after mass shootings.
Phillip Van Cleave, president of the Virginia Citizens Defense League, a Second Amendment advocacy group, didn’t believe requiring checks at a gun show would put a dent in crime.
He said private sales made up a small amount of the transactions at a gun show. He said the guns sold by private sellers typically would not be “practical” or “useful to criminals,” saying those guns are often specialty, possibly antique, weapons.
“It’s just a different inventory,” he said.
In general, his organization is opposed to more gun control. Van Cleave said people should have the ability to sell their own legally obtained property — whether at a gun show or elsewhere — without having to get federal permission. He also said he opposed universal background checks that would give the government a list of guns that every person had.
According to the Brady Campaign website, federal background checks have blocked more than 3 million sales since 1994.
The Coalition to Stop Gun Violence argues universal checks, including private sales, are essential “to guarantee that criminals, domestic abusers, the dangerously mentally ill and others are denied unchecked access to guns.”
State legislation passed in 2016 gave private sellers the option to ask for background checks at a gun show, but few people choose to do that. The Richmond Times-Dispatch found only 54 background checks were requested by private sellers at 77 gun shows in Virginia in the first year of sellers having that option. Meanwhile, 39,738 checks were conducted by licensed dealers at gun shows in that same span.
Background checks at gun shows work.
On Saturday, one person was pulled aside by a State Police trooper working at the show after being flagged at a background check.
An official from the Virginia Firearms Transaction Center told the Times-Dispatch that he estimated maybe 15 to 20 private sales happened at each gun show, where 600 to 800 purchases are made with a background check.
Operators of this weekend’s gun show in Hampton did not allow media to come into the show. A representative said over the phone that the organization does not grant interviews.