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January 19, 2009

Advocates Determined to Close Gun Show Loophole in Commonwealth

On January 13, staff from the Educational Fund to Stop Gun Violence was honored to join victims and survivors from the tragic shootings at Virginia Tech; concerned students from Longwood University; and representatives from Protest Easy Guns, the Virginia Chapters of the Million Mom March, the Virginia Center for Public Safety, and Students for Gun Free Schools as they attended a hearing of the Virginia State Crime Commission in Richmond.

The Crime Commission was scheduled to make a recommendation to the Virginia General Assembly on the Gun Show Loophole issue. The loophole allows individuals to sell firearms at gun shows without conducting criminal background checks on purchasers. The ATF has identified gun shows as the second leading source of illegally trafficked firearms in the United States, stating 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 … Firearms [are] diverted at and through gun shows by straw purchasers, unregulated private sellers, and licensed dealers.” An ATF investigation in Virginia found that between 2002 and 2005 more than 400 firearms sold at Richmond-area gun shows were recovered in connection with criminal activity.

The Virginia Tech Review Panel, the Virginia State Police, and an overwhelming majority of Commonwealth residents have called for the loophole to be closed. Omar Samaha, brother of Virginia Tech victim Reema Samaha, also made it clear to the Crime Commission how easy it was for him to buy handguns and assault weapons at a recent Virginia gun show from private sellers—no questions asked. “It’s like going to the store to buy a jug of milk or a candy bar,” Samaha said. “I had 10 guns in under an hour.”

Unfortunately, the Crime Commission failed to heed these recommendations, and deadlocked 6-6 on a vote to recommend that the Gun Shop Loophole be closed. The key vote was cast by House Minority Leader Delegate Ward L. Armstrong (D-Henry), who had joined the commission only days earlier. He claimed his NO vote was because of the high unemployment rate in his district, and the importance of the annual Carroll County Gun Show. This logic was not immediately clear—background checks are inexpensive and gun shows continue to thrive in states that have closed the Gun Show Loophole, such as California. Armstrong also complained about not being well briefed on the issue, but decided to vote NO anyway even after Commission Chairman David B. Albo (R-Fairfax) recommended he abstain.

Gun violence prevention advocates were undeterred, and gathered by the Bell Tower on the State Capitol grounds immediately after the Commission hearing to conduct a Lie-In in remembrance of past victims of gun violence. Courtney Edwards, a Longwood student who lost her best friend, Nicole White, during the Virginia Tech tragedy, spoke and said, “I can't believe that they are even questioning this. I don't even understand what the question is about it." Nicole’s father, Mike White, was more blunt: “Indecision is what caused the murder of my child,” he said. “Indecision today is what will cause convicted felons, [the] mentally ill and others to walk into the next gun show and purchase a weapon in order to wreak more harm.”

The issue will now move to the Virginia General Assembly, where Senator Henry Marsh (D-Richmond) and Senator Janet Howell (D-Reston) have already introduced legislation, SB 1257, to close the Gun Show Loophole.

Advocates are committed to passing the legislation and ready for a tough fight. “I don’t care if it takes a decade,” said Lily Habtu, who was shot multiple times at Virginia Tech but survived. “No one should have to go through what I went through.” Omar Samaha agrees. “We are going to keep going until this law is changed,” he said.


  1. Regardless of the closed ears of Virginia's NRA dominated legislators, requiring a criminal background check on sales at shows is so the right thing for the state to do. Yeah!to Lili Havatu and the people who are speaking up and taking up this issue!!

  2. How, again, would closing the so-called "gun show loophole" have posed any kind of obstacle to the commission of the Virginia Tech atrocity?

  3. Thanks for your comment, 45superman. Obviously, Virginia's gun laws were weak enough to allow Seung-Hui Cho, who had been declared a danger to himself after being evaluated in a psychiatric institution, to pass background checks and purchase handguns from federally licensed dealers.

    However, that specific loophole in the law was immediately fixed after the Virginia Tech tragedy by Governor Tim Kaine. Courts in the Commonwealth have now been specifically instructed to forward Orders of Involuntary Admission to the Virginia State Police regardless of whether committal or outpatient treatment is recommended on the form.

    The question for policy makers now becomes, "Where would the next Cho get his guns?" What's the logical next step for a deranged and dangerous individual who fails a background check? Clearly, it would be to buy a gun(s) from a private dealer where there is no background check whatsoever and no record of sale (making the sale difficult or impossible for authorities to trace).

    The Virginia Tech Review Panel studied the Virginia Tech shootings and Cho's background in greater detail than anyone, and their final recommendation was to require background checks on all private gun sales in the Commonwealth, whether they occur at gun shows or elsewhere. In the panel's words, "In an age of widespread information technology, it should not be too difficult for anyone, including private sellers, to contact the Virginia Firearms Transaction Program for a background check that usually only takes minutes before transferring a firearm." - CSGV

  4. There is no such thing as a private gun dealer. A dealer is someone who specifically "deals" in a certain profession. Someone who wants to sell a firearm or two or three a year is not a dealer. What you are saying is that someone who sells their car is a car dealer which that person isn't. Secondly, disclosing medical information is a violation of doctor patient privileges, even if it is mental in nature.

  5. Thanks for your comment, Rudy. The quote from ATF provided in this blog refers to “unregulated private sellers” that are the source of firearms that are illegally trafficked to prohibited persons. Whatever label you wish to put on it, the concern is that individuals are allowed to sell firearms at gun shows without conducting background checks on purchasers.

    Nor is there any regulation to ensure that these individuals are “not engaged in the business” of dealing firearms. There is no examination of tax records to ensure that private sellers are not selling firearms with the “principal objective of livelihood and profit.” Those unlicensed individuals engaging in firearms dealing as a “regular course of trade or business” would only come under the attention of ATF if their guns were recovered in trafficking or crime scene investigations. By that time, these guns could have already been used to do harm to innocent individuals and communities.

    As for your claim that disclosing medical information is “a violation of doctor patient privileges,” what specific federal and state laws are you referring to? There was certainly nothing in the law to prevent Governor Kaine and the Virginia State Legislature from closing the “Mental Health Loophole” (requiring the reporting of all Orders of Involuntary Admission to the State Police in the future), which is an important reform. Chapter IV and Chapter V of the final report of the Virginia Tech Review Panel also contain excellent recommendations on how to move forward in this area. - CSGV