Gun Shows in America
Section Seven: Trends

The Role of Civil Litigation

An increased willingness on the part of the courts to hold gun show organizers liable when guns from their shows wind up in the wrong hands and cause death or injury may help motivate gun show promoters to control inventory and ensure that laws are obeyed. One example is the recent landmark ruling by an Ohio court in Pavlides v. Niles Gun Show, Inc.32, a case involving two teenage attendees at a gun show sponsored by Niles Gun Show, Inc. The show’s lax security allowed the two boys to walk away with three handguns and other paraphernalia. The boys then stole a car and proceeded to drive across lawns and crush curbside garbage cans. The teenagers fired on two neighbors who gave chase and one, Greg Pavlides, was hit and paralyzed from the waist down. He sued the teenagers and the gun show for negligence as well as wilful and wanton misconduct. In response to a motion by the defendants that the case be dismissed, the plaintiffs submitted an affidavit from another gun show promotor, Bill Goodman, the proprietor of International Gun-A-Rama, Inc. In his affidavit, Mr. Goodman stated:

Based upon my experience and expertise, I am of the opinion that the availability of any type of firearm and ammunition in the possession of a minor creates a potential danger, and it is clearly foreseeable that a weapon in the hands of a minor will result in injury. Based upon the fact that a 13-year-old boy was able to purchase .38 caliber [sic] hollow point ammunition and that three [sic] minors were permitted into the defendant Niles Gun Show and able to easily steal firearms creates a foreseeable danger that said minors would use these firearms to cause injury.

An Ohio jury found the youths and the gun show jointly and severally liable and awarded $750,000 in compensatory and $10,000 in punitive damages, although Mr. Pavlides was found 50 percent at fault for giving chase. Under Ohio law and the doctrine of joint and several liability, Niles Gun Show will be liable for the entire amount because the two youths were insolvent and the law allows full recovery to plaintiffs in cases, like Niles Gun Show, in which the jury finds that punitive damages are warranted. This case has undoubtedly put gun show promoters on notice that failure to adequately monitor gun show inventory can result in significant financial liability. Considering the lack of formal regulatory oversight of gun shows, this incentive to enhance gun show security is a minimal first step to protect the public safety.

The Number of Federal Firearms License Holders Begins to Decrease

It is important to note the emergence over the past few years of a new variable in the future of gun shows. Beginning in 1994 there has been a dramatic decrease in the number of Federal Firearm Licenses issued and renewed by the federal government. When President Clinton took office in 1993, there were more than 245,000 Americans holding Type 1 Federal Firearms Licenses. Because of changes in the management of the licensing procedure made by the Clinton Administration and due in large part to changes in federal law related to gun dealers, by February 1996 the number of Type 1 Federal Firearms Licenses had plummeted to 142,220.33

That the drop in the number of federally licensed dealers may have a long-term impact on the volume of gun shows has also been noted by some industry insiders. Bill McCaughtry, editor of Gun Tests magazine, wrote in the February 1996 issue, “Gun show producers concede that lots of their exhibitors have dropped out of the weekend circuit as a result of license reduction program [sic]. They expect more to do so before all is said and done.” McCaughtry quoted Bob Templeton, director of the National Association of Arms Shows, as saying, “The reduction in licensees is the most insidious long-term and short-term problem we face.”

NRA Sponsorship of Gun Shows: If You Can’t Beat ‘Em, Join ‘Em

Federal law encourages gun shows to be overseen by some organizing entity—however loosely defined. Under federal law “gun shows” and “events” must be “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…in the community.”34

The National Rifle Association attempted to eliminate this sponsorship requirement by suing President Bush’s Treasury Department. The NRA argued that based on the grammatical structure of the statute, gun shows were not required to have organizational sponsorship and that the sponsorship requirement applied only to “events.” The Treasury Department strongly disagreed, arguing:

[T]he construction which plaintiffs [NRA] urge—that `events’ must be sponsored, but `gun shows’ need not be—would lead to impossible problems of interpretation in enforcement….The interpretation for which they call would create overwhelming incentives to designate temporary displays of firearms as `gun shows,’ rather than `events,’ in order to escape the requirement of organizational sponsorship.

The Department went on to describe the absurd outcome that would result:

Without the limiting concept of sponsorship by some organization, commercial or nonprofit, devoted to the sporting use of firearms, any collection of firearms merchants could set up traveling sales operations. Each stop on the tour would in some sense be a `gun show’; salespeople would show guns to those who wanted to see them. Such a construction, however, would eviscerate the statutory requirement that licensees operate from fixed business premises, and destroy the accountability to licensing authorities which the statute and implementing regulations are designed to achieve.

In 1990 the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit agreed with the Treasury Department and upheld the agency’s interpretation of the statute. In response, the NRA has adopted an “if you can’t beat ’em, join ’em” approach to the ruling. The organization has announced that it will sponsor the first annual NRA National Gun Collectors Show & Conference in September 1996 at the Opryland Hotel in Nashville, Tennessee. According to the American Rifleman, this will mark “the first time NRA has sponsored a national gun show.”35

The NRA apparently believes that gun shows offer fertile ground for membership recruitment. The organization’s membership programs include a “Shows and Exhibits” department, which, according to the NRA web site, “recruits new members and renews existing memberships at over 100 sport and gun shows each year.” Complementing this effort is the “Promotor Program,” which has as its ultimate goal “having an NRA recruiter at virtually every gun show across the country.”


  1. Pavlides v. Niles Gun Show, Inc., 637 N.E. 2d 404 (Ohio App. 1994).
  2. In August 1993 President Clinton issued a Presidential Memorandum directing ATF to “take whatever steps are necessary, to the extent permitted by law, to ensure compliance with present licensing requirements….” These included: the development of a more comprehensive application form; improving the thoroughness and effectiveness of background checks; and expansion of cooperative agreements between ATF and state and local enforcement authorities. That November, as part of the Brady waiting period law, the dealer fee was raised from $30 for three years to $200 for three years ($90 for three years for renewals). Then, in September 1994, the federal crime bill codified many of the reforms contained in the 1993 Presidential Memorandum. It also required that: all licensees comply with state and local laws and inform the local chief law enforcement officer that they intend to apply for a Federal Firearms License; all licensees report to ATF all firearm thefts or losses; and that ATF notify state and local jurisdictions of all persons to whom a firearms license has been issued.
  3. 18 U.S.C. § 923 (j) and 27 CFR § 178.100.
  4. The NRA counts among its largest contributors many gun show promoters. For example, during the past year the Arizona Arms Associations, Virginia Gun Collectors, Kentuckian Arms Collectors, and Memphis Weapons Collectors Association have all have contributed $1,000 or more to the NRA’s lobbying arm, the Institute for Legislative Action. In addition, Albert C. Ross, past president and current board member of the Dallas Arms Collectors Association, serves on the NRA’s board of directors and was recently named second vice president of the organization.

Go to Section Eight: Recommendations

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