Gun Shows in America

The 1980s were the glory days of the National Rifle Association of America (NRA). The organization’s golden era began in 1980 with the election of NRA Life Member Ronald Reagan as president. Reagan’s victory was described by the New York Times as “one of the darkest hours for handgun control advocates.” In Congress, after two decades of fighting—and often losing—a defensive battle over gun control,1 the NRA was prepared to launch its first offensive effort in decades. And although gun control took a back seat to economic issues in 1981, the Times warned, “The New Right and its Congressional allies…will be demanding action [in 1982] on their priorities—including gun control.”

And they got it. The NRA unveiled legislation that was nothing less than a pro-gun wish list: the “Firearms Owners’ Protection Act.” Commonly known as “McClure-Volkmer” for its congressional sponsors, then-Senator James McClure (R-ID) and Representative Harold Volkmer (D-MO), it was designed to roll back broad sections of the Gun Control Act of 1968 (GCA).2 Early versions even removed restrictions on the mail-order sale of firearms. (Throughout this study the bill and law will be referred to as McClure-Volkmer.)

NRA direct mail heralded the bill as legislation “every American gun owner and hunter need [sic] passed into law.” According to Congressman Volkmer, the importance of the bill to gun owners was surpassed only by the Second Amendment itself.3 The bill, said Volkmer, would:

protect you, the honest citizen, who might not know every single line and provision of the 23 pages of the Gun Control Act, the 20,000 firearms laws already on the books and thousands of pages of gun regulations. With the…bill as law, we will have taken away from the government bureaucrats the opportunity to punish, harass and entrap America’s law-abiding firearms owners.4

The NRA and the bill’s supporters portrayed McClure-Volkmer as a gun owners’ relief act. In reality, the bill did much more to advance the interests of gun sellers—both Federal Firearms License (FFL)5 holders and unlicensed individuals—than those of the average gun owner.

After a long, bitter debate that pitted the NRA and the firearms industry against gun control advocates and national police organizations, McClure-Volkmer passed both houses of Congress and was signed into law by President Reagan on May 19, 1986. McClure-Volkmer—

  • Allowed Federal Firearms License holders to sell guns at gun shows located in their home state.
  • Allowed individuals not federally licensed as gun dealers to sell their personal firearms as a “hobby.”
  • Restricted the ability of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms (ATF) to conduct inspections of the business premises of federally licensed firearms dealers.
  • Reduced the recordkeeping required of federally licensed firearms dealers, specifically eliminating recordkeeping of ammunition sales.
  • Raised the burden of proof for violations of federal gun laws.
  • Expanded a federal program that restored the ability of convicted felons to possess firearms.

Despite the controversy generated by McClure-Volkmer, little attention has been paid to its effect in the 10 years since the law’s enactment. This study is the first in a series in which the Violence Policy Center (VPC) will analyze the real-world impact of the NRA’s McClure-Volkmer legislation and gauge the law’s effect on public safety.

One legacy of McClure-Volkmer is the uncontrolled proliferation of gun shows—events at which private citizens and federally licensed gun dealers congregate to buy and sell firearms and related paraphernalia. Although the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms maintains no historical records as to the number of gun shows that occur annually and can only offer rough estimates as to the number that occur today, for this study the Violence Policy Center conducted interviews across the country with law enforcement personnel and gun show organizers to gauge the effect of the law on the volume of gun shows. The VPC’s research reveals that the law has resulted in a dramatic increase in the number and size of shows, which occur in auditoriums, fairgrounds, and other outlets in almost every state on virtually every weekend of the year.6 The VPC’s research also reveals that this dramatic increase is due largely to two little-noticed changes McClure-Volkmer made in the way that federally licensed firearms dealers are regulated—

  • The law made it legal for Federal Firearms License holders to sell at gun shows.
  • The law expanded the opportunities for private citizens to buy and sell firearms at gun shows by raising the threshold of what constituted being “engaged in the business” of selling firearms.

The result is a readily available source of weapons and ammunition for a wide variety of criminals—including street gangs, white supremacists, would-be presidential assassins, and domestic terrorists. This study has seven sections.

Section One: The History of McClure-Volkmer details the events leading to the passage of the McClure-Volkmer bill.

Section Two: McClure-Volkmer’s Gun Show Legacy chronicles the debate over allowing Federal Firearms License holders to sell at gun shows and details the two changes contained in McClure-Volkmer that led to the proliferation of gun shows.

Section Three: Changes Seen at Gun Shows as the Result of McClure-Volkmer describes the proliferation of gun shows that followed McClure-Volkmer’s passage, the competition between licensed dealers and unlicensed hobbyists, the opportunities presented to Class 3 machine-gun dealers by gun shows, and the limitations of law enforcement in effectively policing gun shows.

Section Four: Illegal Trafficking at Gun Shows examines the most common ways in which illegal transactions are conducted at gun shows.

Section Five: Where the Famous and Infamous Shop details notable gun show participants, such as David Koresh and Timothy McVeigh, and the role gun shows play in the militia movement.

Section Six: “Truck Loads of Parts Are Readily Available” reveals how gun shows have become a ready market for stolen military parts.

Section Seven: Trends looks at three new developments that may have an effect on gun shows: increased civil litigation; the decrease in the number of Federal Firearms License holders; and, the first-time sponsorship of shows by the National Rifle Association.

Section Eight: Recommendations offers a set of federal and state policy recommendations based on the study’s findings.

The study also has three appendices.

Appendix One is a sample of gun show ads.

Appendix Two is the June 1993 testimony of convicted firearms trafficker Edward Daily III before the U.S. House of Representatives Subcommittee on Crime and Criminal Justice.

Appendix Three is the June 1993 testimony of Bernard Shaw of the Maryland State Police Licensing Division before the U.S. House of Representatives Subcommittee on Crime and Criminal Justice.

These appendices are not included in this on-line edition of the report. For information on how to order a hard copy of the study, including the appendices, please refer to the publications page.

  1. In 1968, Congress passed the Gun Control Act of 1968. In 1972, the U.S. Senate passed a bill that would have banned the domestic production and sale of Saturday Night Special handguns, inexpensive, poorly constructed pistols and revolvers lacking sporting purpose, but no action was taken in the House of Representatives.
  2. The Gun Control Act of 1968 is the primary federal law governing the manufacture, distribution, and sale of firearms and ammunition. The GCA generally prohibited the mail order and interstate sale of firearms, established standards for the licensing of firearm manufacturers, importers, and dealers, and banned the importation of both surplus military firearms and Saturday Night Special handguns.
  3. Contrary to the assertions of Representative Volkmer and the NRA, the Second Amendment of the U.S. Constitution does not guarantee an individual right to keep and bear arms. No gun control law has ever been struck down as violative of the Second Amendment and the Supreme Court has ruled that restrictions on gun possession do not infringe on any fundamental right. Most recently, in 1996 the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit held that an individual had no standing to raise a Second Amendment claim. The court held, “Because the Second Amendment guarantees the right of the states to maintain armed militia, the states alone stand in the position to show legal injury when this right is infringed.” Hickman v. Block, No. 94-55836 (9th Cir. 1996).
  4. NRA direct mail, October 18, 1985.
  5. The Type 1 Federal Firearms License (FFL) is the basic license required to sell firearms in America and is issued by the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms. FFL holders can ship and receive firearms and ammunition in interstate commerce via common carrier in quantity at wholesale prices. Most FFL activity can be conducted free of local and state regulations that apply to individual purchasers, e.g. waiting periods or background checks for handgun purchases.
  6. See Appendix One for a sampling of gun show advertisements.

Go to Section One: The History of McClure Volkmer

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