If you follow debates in Virginia’s General Assembly, you might get the impression that the state could sharply curtail the violent-crime rate if only lawmakers would close the “gun-show loophole.” New data suggest the impression is mistaken.
Federally licensed firearm dealers must conduct a background check on prospective purchasers, but private sellers don’t have to. That’s true regardless of whether the transaction takes place at a gun show or not. Yet to hear advocates and some legislators talk, you’d think gun shows provide hardened criminals with a steady stream of easy weapons.
In fact, the claim has never held up well. Most criminals get their guns through other means, such as “sharing arrangements with fellow gang members,” according to a recent item in Newsweek. A survey of prison inmates by the Bureau of Justice Statistics found that gun shows accounted for less than 1 percent of the firearms used by felons.
That survey is two decades old now, but evidence to contradict it does not seem to have surfaced. Meanwhile, new data about a Virginia law suggests that it probably still holds up. The law, part of a compromise between the GOP-held Assembly and Democratic Gov. Terry McAuliffe, provides for voluntary background checks at gun shows.
Private sellers at gun shows asked for only 54 background checks at the 77 gun shows held in Virginia during the past 12 months. Perhaps few private transactions took place; perhaps many did, but few sellers asked for background checks. (And then there’s the possibility that private sellers simply declined to sell guns to people who seemed sketchy to them, obviating the need for a background check in the first place.)
Either way, only one buyer was denied a firearm because of legal ineligibility. Given the insinuations about criminals and gun shows, that’s a remarkably low rate of less than 2 percent. Meanwhile, federally licensed dealers conducted 40,000 mandatory background checks at gun shows during the same period. The denial rate in those cases was even lower: 1 out of every 122 transactions.
By one estimate, perhaps 15 to 20 private sales take place at the typical gun show. If the estimate is accurate, then multiplying it by the number of gun shows comes to roughly 1,500 such sales. Depending on which denial rate you use, that means somewhere between 10 and 30 individuals bought guns when they should have been denied.
Even one individual can do a tremendous amount of damage — just look at Seung-Hui Cho’s rampage a decade ago at Virginia Tech (Cho bought his guns from a store, not at a gun show). Nevertheless, the figures show that only a small number of disqualified people are buying weapons at gun shows because of the loophole. It is also highly unlikely that every one of them will go on to commit crimes with those weapons.