Conservative media are touting a video from the right-wing Media Research Center purporting to show that vendors at gun shows always refuse to sell firearms to felons and other disqualified persons and that legislation to expand the background check system is unnecessary. But according to prior undercover reports, when private sellers at gun shows were not aware they were on camera, a substantial portion agreed to sell guns to people they believed could not legally possess them.
Vendors who have a Federal Firearms License are required to perform background checks on their customers, but so-called private sellers who say they are not “engaged in the business” of selling firearms have no such requirement at gun shows in 33 states. This discrepancy has been termed the “gun show loophole” and is the reason narco-terrorists, illegal gun traffickers and other dangerous individuals seek out unregulated sales at gun shows. The most infamous use of the loophole is the 1999 Columbine High School massacre where all four guns involved were passed through a local gun show by private sellers.
The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives has estimated between 25 and 50 percent of vendors at gun shows sell without a background check. Adding sales over the Internet and through newspaper classified adverts, a substantial proportion of firearms are transferred without a background check in the United States. Federal legislation to expand the background check system to cover private sales failed in the Senate last year.
For an April 7 video report, MRCTV's Dan Joseph brought a camera crew to The Nation's Gun Show in Chantilly, Virginia to “dispel some of the myths that some people may have about gun shows.” Joseph conducted on-camera interviews with several vendors who all said that they would not sell firearms to prohibited persons, with many describing how the background check process would weed out such individuals.
Conservative media have recently seized on the MRCTV video. Writing for Townhall.com, Fox News' Katie Pavlich argued that the video debunked the “bogus argument” that “the government must issue more regulations to gun shows because a 'loophole' in the system that doesn't require a background check.” The report was similarly praised by The Blaze, CNS News, and Breitbart.com.
It's unclear from Joseph's report whether he spoke to any private sellers, or only to licensed dealers who would be required by law to conduct background checks. But gun sales without background checks are allowed at the gun show he visited. In January 2013, two Virginia legislators visited The Nation's Gun Show and made an undercover video of themselves buying a firearm without a background check from a seller who joked, “You're not a felon this week -- next week we don't know.”
Likewise, at a gun show near Richmond, VA, gun violence prevention advocate Omar Samaha, who lost his sister in the Virginia Tech mass shooting, was able to purchase 10 guns without a background check in an hour.
While it is unlikely anyone in front of a camera crew would admit to selling guns to felons, undercover reporting has demonstrated a rampant willingness of private sellers to sell to someone who says he probably can't pass a background check.
A 2011 under investigation of seven gun shows in three states by the City of New York found that 19 out of 30 private sellers agreed to a sale where the buyer said he probably couldn't pass a background check. One seller who was surreptitiously filmed sold a gun to an undercover investigator who told him three times that he couldn't pass a background check. Other sellers simply laughed and continued with the sale when the investigator said he couldn't pass a check:
Observational research conducted by UC-Davis Violence Prevention Research Program director Garen Wintemute has shown that illegal activity is far less likely to occur in states that have closed the “gun show loophole.” In a 2007 study Wintemute compared gun shows in California -- which do not allow private sales without background checks -- to gun shows in states that do allow such sales. During visits to eight California gun shows, Wintemute did not observe any attempts to subvert the California private sale ban.