Unregulated gun shows can be a magnet for gun traffickers to obtain large quantities of weapons without any background checks. Guns purchased at gun shows are much more likely to be used in criminal activity.
Under federal law, unlicensed (or “private”) sellers aren’t subject to many important gun safety laws such as the requirement to conduct background checks on firearm purchasers. As a result, gun show events featuring many unlicensed sellers can offer a dangerously attractive source of weaponry for people who know they would not pass a background check or who wish to conceal their involvement in gun trafficking and other criminal conduct. In most states, unlicensed sellers at gun shows are not required to conduct background checks, maintain sale records, or comply with waiting periods and other public safety protections, making it far too easy for illegal purchasers to immediately obtain large quantities of weapons and do harm.
Matthew Miller, Lisa Hepburn & Deborah Azrael, “Firearm Acquisition Without Background Checks,” Annals of Internal Medicine 166, no. 4 (2017): 233–239.
Gun shows are events dedicated to the display and sale of firearms and firearm-related accessories. Often held at public venues like fairgrounds or civic centers, gun shows operate as temporary, largely unregulated markets for gun sales. Thousands of people attend the more than 4,000 gun shows held in the United States each year.1 Firearm purchases from gun shows account for an estimated 4% to 9% of annual firearm sales,2 and 3% of gun owners report acquiring their most recent firearm from a gun show.3
Many of the gun transfers that take place at gun shows do not involve a background check, making straw purchases and illegal gun sales extremely common there.
- ATF investigations at gun shows have resulted in arrests for many serious offenses, including straw purchases, sales of firearms to people convicted of felonies, and possession of prohibited firearms like machine guns and sawed-off shotguns.4
- An experimental study of gun shows found sellers willing to participate in transactions that they clearly believed were straw purchases.5
- Importantly, studies suggest that gun show regulations can deter illegal sales. For instance, one study found that straw purchases were significantly more common at gun shows in states with little regulation (Arizona, Florida, Nevada, and Texas) than at gun shows in California, which regulates gun shows and requires background checks for all firearm transfers there.6
Because most gun shows are unregulated, they have become an attractive source of weapons for people looking to circumvent background checks and other gun safety laws. Unsurprisingly, then, guns purchased at gun shows are disproportionately used in criminal activity. Studies indicate that guns purchased in states with weak gun show regulations are particularly likely to be used in crime.
- Data from the ATF shows that about 8,300 crime guns recovered by law enforcement every year are originally sold by licensed dealers at gun shows. 7
- One study measured an increase in firearm deaths and injuries in California communities within convenient driving distance of Nevada gun shows, a state where there are no explicit regulations on gun shows. By contrast, researchers measured no increase in gun deaths or injuries following gun shows in California, where there are multiple laws that govern gun show sales.8 These results suggest that California’s gun show regulations may help to deter illicit firearm use.9
Summary of Federal Law
Federal law defines “gun show” as a “function sponsored by any national, state, or local organization, devoted to the collection, competitive use, or other sporting use of firearms, or an organization or association that sponsors functions devoted to the collection, competitive use, or other sporting use of firearms in the community.”10 A federally licensed firearms dealer may conduct business at a gun show or event located in the same state specified on the license.11 Dealers must conduct background checks on prospective purchasers and maintain sales records of transactions at gun shows.12
However, people who are not federally licensed firearms dealers are also permitted to sell and transfer firearms at gun shows. As described above and in our summary on Universal Background Checks, unlicensed sellers are not required to conduct background checks on purchasers or maintain records of sales under federal law (and in a majority of US states that have failed to close this dangerous loophole).
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A Change in the Law
The explosion of gun shows nationwide is a relatively recent phenomenon that experts attribute to changes in federal law in the mid-1980s. From the adoption of the Gun Control Act of 1968 until 1984, in fact, licensed dealers were prohibited from completing the transfer of guns at gun shows. As one report explains, “Dealers were allowed to exhibit at gun shows, but actual sales had to be consummated at their place of business.”13
Following the adoption of an ATF regulation that allowed licensed dealers to temporarily operate at gun shows in 1984, Congress passed the so-called Firearm Owners’ Protection Act (FOPA) in 1986. FOPA enabled gun dealers to “conduct business temporarily at a location other than the location specified on the license” for a gun show.14 The act also weakly defined the “engaged in the business” threshold that determines whether a firearms seller must be federally licensed, increasing the number of unlicensed, private sellers.15 According to one researcher, “the result [of FOPA] appears to have been a rapid increase in both the number and size of gun shows during the 1980s and 1990s.”16
Summary of State Law
General state laws that regulate the sale of firearms or ammunition, such as waiting periods, recordkeeping, and background check laws, still apply at gun shows. Five states (Connecticut, Colorado, Illinois, New York, and Oregon) have laws expressly addressing background checks at gun shows, although broader laws also apply. As described below, 12 states specifically regulate gun shows in other ways, with California having the most comprehensive regulation of gun shows.17
Background Check Requirements at Gun Shows
The most comprehensive approach to ensuring that sales are only made to eligible purchasers is through a requirement for universal background checks prior to all gun sales and transfers wherever the transfer takes place. For further details, see our summary on Universal Background Checks .
Illinois is among the states that generally requires a background check before a gun sale; more specifically, in Illinois, any firearm seller must verify the validity of the purchaser’s Firearm Owner’s Identification Card. Transfers at gun shows are exempted from this requirement, however, and Illinois has a separate law for background checks at gun shows. Under this law, unlicensed sellers at gun shows are subject to the same requirement as licensed dealers to contact the State Police directly to conduct a background check on any prospective transferee.18
Colorado, Connecticut, New York, Oregon, and Virginia are also among the states that now generally require a background check at the point of sale of any firearm. Connecticut simply refers to its requirement that sellers conduct background checks through law enforcement and confirms that it applies at gun shows.19 In Colorado and New York, sellers must request background checks through licensed dealers, who are required to process the transfer (although they may charge a fee) and gun show promoters must ensure that a dealer is available at a gun show to do this.20 In Oregon, a seller at a gun show may choose to conduct the background check through a licensed dealer for a fee or by contacting the State Police directly.21 In Virginia, the State Police are required to conduct background for sales at gun shows.22
Other State Gun Show Regulations
The following 12 states impose additional requirements on gun shows:
- New York
These laws fall within the following categories:
Safety and Security Requirements
In 1999, California enacted the nation’s broadest legislation to increase safety and oversight at gun shows. California has subsequently strengthened this law, with new provisions adopted in 2022.23 California’s statute specifies that gun show promoters, producers, or organizers must obtain a certificate of eligibility from the state Department of Justice following a background check. Promoters are also required to:
- Prepare security plans for gun shows and notify state and local law enforcement of those plans.
- Provide a full list to the Department of Justice and local law enforcement of all people, entities, and organizations selling, leasing, or transferring guns at the gun show.
- Certify that they will comply with all applicable federal, state and local laws.
- Obtain liability insurance in an amount not less than $1 million.
- Ensure that all firearms brought into the shows are cleared of ammunition and tagged for identification purposes.
- Prohibit anyone under age 18 from entering unless accompanied by a parent, grandparent or legal guardian.24
Gun show vendors are also subject to specified requirements and restrictions, including certifying that they will only display or possess unloaded firearms that are secured, and that ammunition will only be displayed in closed containers.25 They must also, among other things, certify that they will not display, possess, or offer for sale any illegal weapons, unserialized frames or receivers (including completed or unfinished frames or receivers), or any attachment or conversion kit to convert a handgun into a short-barreled rifle or assault weapon.26
Licensing of Gun Show Vendors
Maryland requires all vendors of handguns and assault weapons to possess a valid state dealer license or, alternatively, a temporary transfer permit (requiring a background check on the permittee) for persons displaying a handgun or assault weapon at five or fewer shows per year.27
Several states impose various types of recordkeeping requirements on gun show promoters and/or sellers.28 For record-keeping requirements that apply to all sellers, including sellers at gun shows, see our summary on Maintaining Records of Gun Sales. Colorado,29 Illinois, New York, and Oregon specifically require that records be maintained of all firearm transactions that occurred at gun shows. Illinois requires the transferor to maintain a record for 10 years;30 New York requires the dealers who process the transfers to retain records for 10 years;31 Oregon calls for records to be kept by the transferor for 5 years.32
Notice to Law Enforcement
Virginia requires “firearms show” promoters to give notice of each show to state and local police at least 30 days prior to the show. Promoters must maintain a list of all exhibitors for the duration of the show and transmit a copy of that list to law enforcement within five days of the show’s completion.33 Connecticut also requires gun show promoters to give local law enforcement at least 30 days’ notice of a gun show.34 Alabama requires gun show promoters to pay the state’s license tax, provide the county and municipality with a list of participants, and collect and remit any applicable state or local sales taxes from participants.35 California similarly requires gun show organizers/promoters/producers to provide a full list to the state Department of Justice and local law enforcement of all people, entities, and organizations selling, leasing, or transferring guns at the gun show.36
California provides an extensive list of warnings that must be posted in a readily visible location at each public entrance to a gun show. Promoters must also post, in a readily visible location at each entrance to the parking lot of the gun show, a sign that states, “The transfer of firearms on the parking lot of this facility is a crime.”37 Maine requires the posting of a sign at all entrances of an organized gun show regarding child access to firearms.38 Colorado, New York, and Oregon require the posting of certain signs regarding their background check requirements.39
Special Event Regulations
Gun shows may be subject to state laws and regulations regarding special events generally. In Oklahoma, for example, gun shows are explicitly mentioned as an example of a “special event,” so that the gun show promoters must ensure that sales taxes are paid in accordance with state law.40 Tennessee law is similar.41
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Selected Local Law
In 1980, Omaha, Nebraska enacted an ordinance regulating “firearms exhibitions.”42 Under the ordinance, any person promoting or sponsoring a firearms exhibition must first obtain a local permit. Applicants for such a permit must have a federal firearms dealer license.
A firearms exhibition promoter or sponsor must provide: (1) security personnel at all exhibition entrances, who must ensure that firearms brought into the exhibition are not loaded; (2) 24-hour security at the exhibition site; (3) written notice to all exhibitors stating that all laws and ordinances must be observed; and (4) the names and addresses of all exhibitors to the chief of police. Exhibitors must record all firearms transferred or acquired, must retain these records for two years, and must make this information available to law enforcement.
Omaha also prohibits the exhibition or sale of ammunition “in an assembled state” at firearms exhibitions. Firearms exhibitions in Omaha may not last more than three consecutive days.
Key Legislative Elements
The features listed below are intended to provide a framework from which policy options may be considered. A jurisdiction considering new legislation should consult with counsel.
- For all firearm transfers, private sellers at gun shows are subject to similar requirements as licensed dealers, including background checks and record-keeping requirements:
- The most comprehensive option requires all firearm transfers to be conducted through licensed dealers at the point of sale, so that background checks will be completed on all purchasers (including purchases from unlicensed sellers), and sales records will be maintained
- If the jurisdiction does not require that all firearm transfers be conducted through licensed dealers, unlicensed sellers at gun shows are required to:
- Conduct background checks through a central law enforcement agency (or licensed dealer) that has access to federal and state databases of prohibited purchasers.
- Retain records of all firearm transfers for a lengthy period.
- Report all such transfers to state and local law enforcement.43
- If gun show vendors are not licensed dealers, they are required to obtain a permit, including a background check, to sell any weapons (Maryland requires a permit but only for vendors of handguns and assault weapons).
- Gun show promoters are required to obtain a permit after undergoing a background check, and/or be a licensed dealer
- Safety and security requirements are imposed on the promoter, requiring, for example, that:
- A list of exhibitors is maintained and provided to law enforcement
- There is a security plan and state and local law enforcement are notified of the plan
- All firearms brought into the shows are cleared of ammunition and tagged for identification purposes
- Entry into gun shows by unaccompanied minors is restricted
- The promoter has a specified minimum level of liability insurance
- There are trained law enforcement personnel on site
- Ellicott C. Matthay, et al., “In-state and Interstate Associations Between Gun Shows and Firearm Deaths and Injuries: a Quasi-experimental Study,” Annals of Internal Medicine 167, no. 12 (2017): 837–844. See also, “The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives’ Investigative Operations at Gun Shows,” Office of the Inspector General, US Department of Justice, June 2007, https://oig.justice.gov/reports/ATF/e0707/final.pdf; “Gun Shows: Brady Checks and Crime Gun Traces,” Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms, January 1999, https://www.atf.gov/file/57506/download.
- Philip J. Cook and Jens Ludwig, Guns in America: Results of a Comprehensive National Survey on Firearms Ownership and Use (Washington DC: Police Foundation, 1996); Garen Wintemute, “Inside Gun Shows: What Goes On When Everybody Thinks Nobody’s Watching,” UC Davis Violence Prevention Research Program, 2009.
- Matthew Miller, Lisa Hepburn, and Deborah Azrael, “Firearm Acquisition Without Background Checks: Results of a National Survey,” Annals of Internal Medicine 166, no. 4 (2017): 233–239.
- “The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives’ Investigative Operations at Gun Shows,” US Department of Justice, Office of the Inspector General, June 2007, https://oig.justice.gov/reports/ATF/e0707/final.pdf.
- “Gun Show Undercover: Report on Illegal Sales at Gun Shows,” City of New York, October 2009, http://www.nyc.gov/html/om/pdf/2009/pr442-09_report.pdf.
- Garen J. Wintemute, “Gun Shows Across a Multistate American Gun Market: Observational Evidence of the Effects of Regulatory Policies,” Injury Prevention 13, no. 3 (2007): 150–155.
- “PART III: Crime Guns Recovered and Traced Within the United States and Its Territories,” Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, January 2023, https://www.atf.gov/firearms/docs/report/nfcta-volume-ii-part-iii-crime-guns-recovered-and-traced-us/download
- Ellicott C. Matthay, et al., “In-state and Interstate Associations Between Gun Shows and Firearm Deaths and Injuries: a Quasi-experimental Study,” Annals of Internal Medicine 167, no. 12 (2017): 837–844.
- 27 C.F.R. § 478.100(b).
- 27 C.F.R. § 478.100(a)(1).
- 27 C.F.R. § 478.100(c).
- Violence Policy Center, Gun Shows in America: Tupperware® Parties for Criminals (July 1996), http://www.vpc.org/studies/tuptwo.htm.
- 18 U.S.C. § 923(j).
- 18 U.S.C. § 921(a)(21)(C). See our summary on Dealer Regulations for more information on this issue.
- Garen J. Wintemute, Inside Gun Shows, supra, note 1, at 1-20.
- New Jersey limits the business of a licensed retail firearms dealer to the building or buildings designated in the license. N.J. Stat. § 2C:58-2(a)(1). An administrative regulation confirms that this law prohibits retail dealers from conducting business at a gun show. N.J. Admin. Code. § 13:54-3.4(e).
- 430 Ill. Comp. Stat. 65/3, 65/3.1; 720 Ill. Comp. Stat. 5/24-3(A)(k), (C)(7).
- Conn. Gen. Stat. § 29-37g.
- Colo. Rev. Stat. §§ 12-26.1-101 – 12-26.1-108; N.Y. Gen. Bus. Law §§ 895 – 897; N.Y. Penal Law § 400.00. Colorado’s law requiring a background check before the sale of a firearm at a gun show was added through a statewide ballot initiative in 2000 in response to the Columbine tragedy and remains on the books. The state’s new law requiring a background check before any private sale was adopted in 2013. The procedures that are required under either of these laws are identical.
- Or. Rev. Stat. §§ 166.432 – 166.441.
- Va. Code Ann. 54.1-4201.2.
- See 2022 CA AB 2552.
- Cal. Penal Code §§ 16800, 26805, 27200-27245, 27300-27415.
- Cal. Penal Code § 27305.
- Cal. Penal Code § 27305 (as amended by 2022 CA AB 2552, SEC. 3. (effective January 1, 2023).
- Md. Code Ann., Pub. Safety §§ 5-106, 5-130.
- Federal law requires licensed dealers to maintain firearm sales records indefinitely. 18 U.S.C. § 923(g)(1)(A).
- Colo. Rev. Stat. § 12-26.1-102.
- 430 Ill. Comp. Stat. 65/3(b).
- N.Y. Gen. Bus. Law § 896(c).
- Or. Rev. Stat. §§ 166.438(2), 166.441.
- Va. Code Ann. §§ 54.1-4200, 54.1-4201.1. These requirements do not apply firearms shows held in any town with a population of not less than 1,995 and not more than 2,010, according to the 1990 United States census. Va. Code Ann. § 54.1-4201.1(C).
- Conn. Gen. Stat. § 29-37g.
- Ala. Code § 40-12-143.
- Cal. Penal Code §§ 27205; 27305.
- Cal. Pen. Code § 27240.
- Me. Rev. Stat. tit. 15, § 455-A.
- Colo. Rev. Stat. § 12-26.1-104; N.Y. Gen. Bus. Law § 896(a); Or. Rev. Stat. § 166.438(3).
- Okla. Stat. tit. 68, § 1364.2.
- Tenn. Code § 67-4-710.
- Omaha, Nebraska Municipal Code §§ 19-383 – 19-392.2.
- For examples of record-keeping and reporting requirements see our summary on Maintaining Records of Gun Sales.