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What I learned at the gun show
If you've never been, you really must go. It's a fascinating sociological expedition
Paul Brandus
Paul Brandus
I

f you've never been to a gun show, you should go. It's worth it simply to get a look at one side of the national debate we're having on firearms, the Second Amendment, and public safety.

I went to a big show in Virginia recently (free admission if you joined the National Rifle Association). Spread out over three days at a sprawling exhibition hall near Dulles Airport, it was packed with buyers and sellers of all kinds of weaponry — from a few super-pricey Browning shotguns ($16,500-$19,000) to a .25-caliber Saturday Night Special for $115.

Who goes to them? Some of the same people, who, according to a recent Pew Research survey, tend to own guns in the first place: White men from the South. Perhaps gun shows elsewhere are different, but that's who was generally there in the packed exhibition hall. There were kids as well, tagging along with their dads as they perused the aisles of weaponry, knives, clothing, and other wares. And this being Fairfax County, one of the wealthiest counties in America, a few men were well-dressed, corporate-looking types, probably dropping in after work on a Friday night. It was polite, orderly, well-run and informative. 

A gun show is a vast marketplace for private transactions, many of which are not regulated by law. Supporters of gun rights applaud this, but gun control advocates criticize this so-called "gun-show loophole," which they say allows anyone to buy a gun without having to first pass a federal background check. Anecdotally, I found that most sellers were licensed dealers, but not all. AFTE estimates that between 25 and 50 percent are not.

But gun supporters go so far as to say that the term "loophole" is misleading, because a private commercial transaction between two parties is just that, private, and that sellers aren't required to perform background checks if they sell their guns at their kitchen tables to a neighbor or relative.

"If those kind of transactions aren't regulated, what's the use tightening regulations at guns shows?" a dealer who identified himself as Richard told me. "You ever heard of the Commerce Clause?"

The Commerce Clause, in case you're unfamiliar, is the part of the Constitution that says the federal government has the right to regulate commerce between states. But who can regulate commerce taking place within a state — say, Virginia? That's a matter of debate. Under the Commerce Clause, states can argue that regulating the sale of firearms within their own borders is their Constitutional right and none of the federal government's business. Gun control advocates see it differently, but for some reason I didn't run into any of them in the exhibition hall.

Most states exercise this right. In 33 states, private gun owners can sell their wares at guns shows — and buyers are not required to undergo background checks. That's why in a prior column, I mentioned Omar Samaha. The Virginia man, whose sister was murdered in the 2007 massacre at Virginia Tech, went to a 2009 gun show on behalf of ABC News, and with $5,000, was able to buy 10 guns in an hour — no questions asked.

I asked Richard — who was wearing a sweatshirt with a picture of an AR-15 (the semi-automatic assault rifle owned by Nancy Lanza) with the words "I got this for my wife" — how school shootings could be prevented. Needless to say, his answers didn't include banning assault weapons like the AR-15 or limiting the capacity of their magazines, but focusing on mental health. "Adam Lanza was a sicko," Richard said (No argument from me). "Laws need to be better enforced. The government isn't enforcing the laws it already has and now it wants more? No."

He mentioned one in particular: The failure of the government to prosecute people for lying on background forms when trying to buy a gun. He's right. In 2010, some 80,000 Americans were denied guns, according to the Justice Department, because they lied or provided inaccurate information about their criminal background check forms. But only 44 of those people were charged with a crime. Cracking down on these "lie and try" cheaters is one thing both gun supports and opponents actually agree on.

On most gun issues, though, even Sandy Hook has failed to move the needle much. The Pew survey, taken in mid-January, said 51 percent of Americans favor tougher gun control measures, with 45 percent opposing. Two years ago, 47 percent supported tougher measures. In fact, Pew says, long-term support for tougher measures is gradually falling: Five years ago, 58 percent supported tougher laws. America's gun culture is alive and well.

Editor's note: This article has been revised since it was first published.

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