Hidden Camera and Straw Purchases at Gun Shows 

By Jaewon Kang


Sales of firearms at gun shows remain one of the main issues in the national gun debate. The approximately 5,000 gun shows each year across the country make up a large component of gun commerce and play a controversial role in the discussion. Some experts say gun shows are one of the leading sources of illegally diverted guns, while others argue only a small percentage of criminals obtain firearms from gun shows. 


Under federal law, licensed firearm dealers must conduct a background check on potential buyers, using a national database. However, private sellers — those other than federally licensed dealers — aren’t required under federal law to run background checks or keep a record of transactions, though some states, like California, are more stringent.  


Critics say the federal private seller exemption creates a loophole. They claim unrecorded transactions conducted by some sellers at gun shows make it easier for people prohibited from legally possessing firearms to obtain them. But that is disputed by others, who say those loopholes don’t really exist, that gun shows are monitored by law enforcement.   


One researcher tried to sort this out on his own. With a small video camera on his shirt button and a recorder in his pants, Garen Wintemute, director of Violence Prevention Research Program at the University of California, Davis, secretly documented transactions at gun shows across the country. He learned that many firearms travel covertly at gun shows through a practice called straw purchases.


Straw purchases occur when someone knowingly buys a firearm on behalf of another person who is prohibited from legally obtaining a gun. From 1996 to 1998, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives found that about 46 percent of illegal firearms trafficking involved straw purchases. 


Wintemute also saw that straw purchases happened less frequently in California, which has some of the strictest gun show policies in the country. California doesn’t treat private transactions any differently from retail transactions. All sales must still go through licensed dealers, said Samuel Hoover, staff attorney at Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence. Private sellers at California gun shows must run background checks on potential buyers through federally licensed dealers, who use databases from the Federal Bureau of Investigation and the state. But states all differ in their private sale regulations. Nevada, for instance, currently doesn’t have private sale requirements or gun show regulations, Hoover added. 

PBS NewsHour correspondent Spencer Michels — while reporting a story on illegal guns and their owners — talked with Wintemute about a straw purchase he witnessed at a gun show in Florida seven years ago. 


Editor’s Note: PBS NewsHour website is down temporarily. Until it’s back up, we’ll be publishing content here on Tumblr.