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September 7, 2009

What's Going On (at Gun Shows): Sense of Impunity

Last week, Dr. Garen Wintemute, the Director of the Violence Prevention Research Program at UC Davis, released a fascinating study that takes an inside look at America’s gun shows. Entitled “Inside Gun Shows: What Goes On When Everybody Thinks Nobody’s Watching,” it catalogues Wintemute’s observations at 78 gun shows that he attended in 19 states between 2005 and 2008. More importantly, it contains hundreds of color photographs that he took surreptitiously at these events. These photos document illegal straw purchases; anonymous, undocumented private party gun sales; the widespread availability of assault weapons; and the links between gun shows and the Neo-Nazi movement.

In the study, Wintemute describes the two systems of commerce that operate side-by-side at gun shows. On the one hand, you have dealers licensed by the federal government who are required to conduct background checks on gun purchasers. At the shows he attended, Wintemute found that those prohibited under federal law from purchasing firearms (i.e., convicted felons, domestic abusers, drug users, the mentally ill, etc.) would often evade this requirement by engaging in straw purchases. In a straw purchase, a prohibited purchaser recruits an individual(s) with a clean criminal record to pass a background check and purchase firearms for him/her (a straw purchase is a federal felony offense for both the straw purchaser and the ultimate possessor of the firearms). “The openness and sense of impunity with which straw purchases were sometimes conducted was striking,” Wintemute reports. Licensed dealers account for two-thirds of trafficked firearms that come from gun shows.

Private party sellers are also present at gun shows. These sellers are not licensed by the government and are not required to conduct background checks. A 1986 law exempted anyone who is “not engaged in the business” of dealing firearms from the background check requirement. Theoretically, these are individuals who make “occasional sales, exchanges, or purchases of firearms for the enhancement of a personal collection or for a hobby, or who [sell] all or part of [their] collection of firearms.” The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF), however, has noted that the effect of this law “has often been to frustrate the prosecution of unlicensed dealers masquerading as collectors or hobbyists but who are really trafficking firearms to felons or other prohibited persons.” More than 85% of crime guns recovered by ATF have gone through at least one private party transaction following their initial sale by a licensed gun dealer.

Private gun sales don’t occur only at gun shows, Wintemute emphasizes. They can occur virtually anywhere—at flea markets, through classified ads in newspapers, over the Internet, in private homes, on the street, etc. Because they are anonymous and involve no paperwork, they are particularly attractive to prohibited purchasers.

At gun shows, the ATF estimates that 25 to 50% of all gun sellers who rent table space are unlicensed. Private sellers can also walk around freely at gun shows, selling firearms they’ve brought with them to other attendees. Private sales were common at the gun shows Wintemute attended. He even observed such sales occurring in states where they are illegal.

In terms of the wares that were available at gun shows, Wintemute observed that, “All types of guns are available at gun shows, but assault weapons, particularly civilian versions of AR and AK rifles, seem to figure more prominently at gun shows than in gun commerce generally.”

Little enforcement action was evident at these events. ATF has stated that “too often [gun] shows provide a ready supply of firearms to prohibited persons, gangs, violent criminals, and illegal firearms traffickers.” Yet, as Wintemute notes, the understaffed ATF has no proactive program of gun show enforcement and conducts investigations at only 3.3% of the approximately 2,300 gun shows that occur each year.

In terms of the social environment at gun shows, Wintemute observed three phenomena that have “significant potential to contribute to firearm violence. These concern: 1) promoting objectification and violence in relationships between men and women, 2) facilitating children’s access to firearms, and 3) endorsing violence as a tool for problem-solving.” Neo-Nazi and Neo-Confederate paraphernalia was common. The Turner Diaries is everywhere,” Wintemute notes, “and Mein Kaumpf can be found next to [John Lott’s] More Guns, Less Crime.”

At present, 17 states regulate gun shows in some manner. Six regulate all private party gun sales and nine more regulate private party sales of handguns only. Two states regulate private party sales at gun shows only.

In his study, Wintemute makes three key recommendations to improve existing regulation of firearm commerce. First, he says that law enforcement operations at gun shows must be expanded. “Ideally,” he says, “there would be an enforcement operation at every major event.” He cites California as an example of where such a program has worked, and well. Second, he calls for all private gun sales (not just those at gun shows) to be regulated to prevent prohibited persons from buying guns. “It appears that denial of gun purchases [through background checks] significantly lowers the risk of committing violent and gun-related crimes among the persons who are directly affected,” Wintemute notes. Finally, he calls for voluntary action by promoters and licensed dealers at gun shows to police potentially illegal sales. “Little goes on at a gun show that is not observed by those nearby,” he states.

You can view the full study along with photographs and videos here.

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