Dear Assistant Director Wooton:
This letter is a response to your open letter of 23 November 1998 regarding the President’s radio address about gun shows.
While all of us in the gun owning community share the President’s concern about guns falling into the wrong hands, his radio address indicates he doesn’t fully understand the gun show dynamic, nor the various federal and state laws surrounding activities at such shows.
It should be stated from the outset that a significant percentage of individuals who display firearms at gun shows all across the U.S. are in fact Federal Firearms Licensees (FFLs), and are thus subject to all laws, federal, state AND local, regarding the sale of firearms. These include NICS checks, effective November 30, 1998.
Many other table holders at gun shows have a Curio & Relic license, or deal solely in antique firearms. As such, they are not subject to the various controls placed on the sale of modern firearms, nor are we aware of any credible information that such firearms constitute a problem of criminal misuse.
Most of the remaining table holders at gun shows, excepting the two categories above, are individual collectors or hobbyists who are there with the specific intention of upgrading a collection or trading one or two personally-owned firearms. Good examples of these would be small game or bird shooters who wish to sell/trade a shotgun in order to acquire a rifle as hunting seasons shift.
Gun shows are a common scapegoat for the “evils of arms trafficking,” frequently being portrayed on the ten o’clock news in alarming exposes, complete with hidden camera footage and apparently furtive dealing (actually, most of the “furtive dealing” is on the part of the photo-journalist). While such “journalism” may win awards, does it really portray the reality of today’s gun shows? We don’t think so. And when these “exposes” are aired, how frequently does the U.S. attorney or local prosecutor respond to the illegal activity–by the table holder OR by the “journalist”–with appropriate legal action?
In the past the ATF has suggested creation of a “gun show promoters license,” in order to hold those individuals or corporations responsible for ensuring the legal compliance of table holders. We believe this approach to be unconstitutional as well as unworkable, and one that would surely be tied up in the courts for several years. Third party accountability is not the answer to illegal actions by one or two individuals, especially when it would be almost impossible for the promoter to adequately monitor all of the activities at any large gun show.
While the President’s comments specifically addressed the “gun show loophole,” we believe the percentage of privately-owned firearms traded at gun shows constitute only a fraction of guns privately sold across the United States. Thus we feel the President’s actual intent was to impose federal control over all private sales of firearms. This intent was clear in his sound bite “No NICS, no guns, no exceptions.”
In deliberating the 1968 Gun Control Act, the 1986 Volkmer-McClure Firearms Owners Protection Act, and the 1993 Brady Handgun Violence Prevention Act, consideration was given to extending federal control of firearm sales to private transactions. This approach was rejected in each case.
NICS was sold to Congress in 1993 as a rapid and convenient way to weed out disqualified persons, while respecting the rights of law abiding citizens to acquire firearms without undue burden. Essentially, a NICS-check was likened to a credit card transaction–one swipe of the card, wait a few moments, and the sale is concluded. The NICS program has been up and running (or trying to) for five days as this is being written, and the reality has proven far different from the simplistic program first advertised.
Rather than a brief delay while a simple data base check is conducted, dealers are finding themselves unable to get through to the NICS center at all. If and when they finally do get through, in most cases a “delayed” response is given, meaning a loss of four business days (the day the check is initiated doesn’t count, followed by a three day wait, and then delivery on the following day) in completing the sale, OR the loss of a legitimate sale when the disgusted customer leaves the shop. Given that this is the high-volume season for firearm sales, due to ongoing hunting seasons and the approaching holidays, NICS may very well have a substantial negative impact on the livelihood of these dealers. Were such a situation to occur in any other retail business, the political implications would be felt immediately.
To date, more than a quarter BILLION taxpayer dollars have been expended creating and running the NICS program–such as it is. Any expansion of NICS to cover private sales of firearms, either at gun shows or elsewhere, would require a massive infusion of funds that Congress is highly unlikely to approve. One only has to look north of the border to see Canada’s experience in developing and implementing C-68, a national gun registry scheme. C-68 took effect on December 1st (after three delays in implementation dates), coincidentally the day after NICS started. In the five years C-68’s registry has been under development, it’s budget was exceeded by a factor of nearly 300%–at which time the Canadian government stopped telling its citizens what C-68 would REALLY cost. We don’t think the American taxpayer would stand for that.
Speaking of C-68 and national firearm registries, another area of considerable concern regarding NICS is the retention of approved transactions, in direct violation of Congressional direction. Whether the data base of approved transactions carries the label “Audit file” or “Gun Owner Registry,” the net effect is the same. Again, Congress has gone on record on several occasions specifically prohibiting any such national registry. The FBI’s actions in this regard not only appear to flout Congressional guidance, but continue to breed mistrust in government when such mistrust is already at an all-time high. Federal agencies should be acting to restore the people’s faith in our institutions, not to continue its decline.
The bottom line is that the benefit to be gained by imposing NICS checks on private sales of firearms, at gun shows or elsewhere, is far outweighed by the costs, both in dollars and in public trust of government.
A better approach might be to work with gun show promoters, as was done in the meeting with promoters in Denver in May 1995, to foster a fuller appreciation of legal requirements and obligations, and better prepare them to identify and stop abuse of the right to keep and bear arms. Gun shows are already heavily monitored by federal, state and local law enforcement agencies, primarily to identify illegal arms trafficking and to identify stolen firearms.
Existing federal law, and many state laws, already clearly identify those individuals whose sale of firearms constitutes “engaging in the business.” By more closely coordinating law enforcement activities with gun show promoters, on a cooperative basis, individuals whose activities meet the level of “engaging in the business” could be guided into compliance without instigating the negative and confrontational response that a more heavy-handed approach is sure to engender.
While it may sound like a broken record, the full breadth of Title 18 control of firearm sales and the literally thousands of state and local gun control laws already in existence offer a ready and enforceable solution to the perceived problem of “gun show arms trafficking.” Even-handed and consistent enforcement of existing law, combined with an open and professional relationship with gun show promoters, will accomplish far more in achieving the goal of reducing the criminal misuse of firearms, a goal which we all support.
If there is anything further we can do to protect the rights of law-abiding Americans while focusing law enforcement attention where it is needed–against law breakers–please don’t hesitate to call on us. We can be reached at (425) 454-4911.