Gun Shows in America Section Six: “Truck Loads of Parts Are Readily Available”

Gun shows have become a primary source for military hardware stolen from U.S. military installations. This has become prevalent enough to be addressed in the mainstream publications of the firearms industry. An article in the March/April 1996 issue of Shooting Sports Retailer asked the question, “Are gun dealers in trouble?” The article noted a shift in gun show fare from antiques and collectibles to military parts:

In their infancy, gun shows were usually a place to go when looking for antique and collectable firearms. Some of them are still that way. But many modern gun shows seem to be more `military armory’ than `old west,’ and a growing number of sellers are non-store dealers.

In November 1993, the Senate Committee on Governmental Affairs conducted a hearing, “Gun Violence: Do Stolen Military Parts Play a Role?” The hearing explored the findings of a November 1993 report from the Government Accounting Office (GAO), Small Arms Parts: Poor Controls Invite Widespread Theft. The GAO report had been undertaken at the request of Senator John Glenn (D-OH), then-chairman of the committee, to investigate reports of inadequate control by the Department of Defense over its inventory of small arms parts. The GAO found that these deficiencies allowed large-scale theft and that the stolen material was widely available at gun shows across the country. GAO personnel were able to purchase stolen military parts at gun shows in each of the six states they visited, and at 13 of the 15 gun shows they visited. At almost every gun show, GAO staff also found 30-round M-16 magazine clips in government packaging. In five states, GAO personnel were able to purchase all of the parts necessary to convert a semiautomatic AR-15 assault rifle into a fully automatic M-16 machine gun.31 The availability of such material to the general public is in direct violation of Department of Defense regulations regarding the disposal of property—including M-16 rifle and M-60 machine gun parts. The regulation states, “Small arms, weapons and parts are not authorized for sale to the general public except as scrap after necessary demilitarization is completed.”

The Committee on Governmental Affairs hearing delved into who purchases stolen military parts and how the parts are filtered into the general—and often criminal—population. Michael Vaughn, detective supervisor for the Los Angeles Police Department and a witness at the Senate hearing, revealed, “All too often, white supremacists, survivalists, organized criminal organizations, subversive groups, and gang members have stockpiled military hardware that surpasses anything available to local, State, and Federal law enforcement agencies.” Vaughn spoke of his experience with thousands of gang investigations and how they had led to the recovery of such materiel as: explosives, heavy machine guns, rocket launchers, automatic rifles, grenades, plastic explosives, and land mines. He reported that often these weapons and parts were: traded for narcotics which were then sold on the street; sold by criminals specializing in military hardware; or, sold to gang members for use in crimes or against rival gangs or police. Vaughn confirmed that many of these weapons and parts are available at gun shows:

We recently monitored a gun show where enough parts can be purchased to assemble the M-16 automatic rifle and Colt M 1911 45 caliber semiautomatic pistol, as well as bombs and booby traps. Many of these parts are still packaged in military crates, original Cosmoline packaging, and available in unbelievable quantities. Virtually truck loads of parts are readily available for purchase. Training ammunition is sometimes unavailable to train troops, but can be purchased by civilians in any amount. Case upon case of this clearly marked military ammunition sits stacked on the floor, available to cash customers.

In response to questions from Senator Glenn regarding the prevalence of pilfered military supplies, Vaughn stated:

When you go to these gun shows or you travel to swap meets, you can virtually see just about any military hardware available. Criminal organizations have been reported to have a variety of different types of weapons. Some even claim that they can produce armored military vehicles for the right amount of cash.

Senator William Cohen (R-ME) inquired about the amounts of military hardware available. Vaughn responded:

Large amounts of military hardware are available. They are not available on the street corner to the average individual criminal. You get into your more sophisticated organized groups, yes. Some of your survivalists and those type of organizations have a tremendous amount of the military hardware available. But it is not sold on the street corner per se to the average gang member. [A] lot of it does wind up in their hands through thefts or through sales at gun shows by people that don’t really realize what they are doing.

The committee’s investigation found that most of the weapons and parts that made their way from military installations, to gun shows, and onto the streets were stolen. Mark Carter, a former National Guardsman who stole military gun parts from his base, told the Senate committee that he sold the bulk of those parts to an Illinois gun dealer. In his testimony before the Senate committee, Carter detailed the ease with which he sold the stolen parts:

I happened to go to a gun show and I didn’t have the money to buy the parts I needed, but I had extra parts at home which I had taken from the National Guard. I took those extra parts to the show and sold them to purchase the parts I needed to put my rifle together….You might want to know what was happening to the parts that were stolen by people like me. There is a black market network across the country which buys stolen arms parts from different National Guard units, then they sell the stolen parts at gun shows and through gun magazines and newspapers.


Six Parts Obtained by the General Accounting Office at Gun Shows That Can be Used to Convert a Semiautomatic AR-15 to a Fully Automatic Machine Gun


  1. The GAO was able to purchase the hammer, trigger, bolt carrier, disconnector, selector lever, and automatic sear. Army experts verified that the parts purchased had been manufactured for military use. The government’s cost for these parts was estimated at $55. Gun show prices ranged from $85 to $165.

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