What I Learned by Attending a Texas Gun Show

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(From left) Maria Sanchez and James Sanchez march through Olmos Park and to the front door of its City Hall on Saturday to demand the resignation of Police Chief Rene Valenciano.

Bonnie Arbittier / Rivard Report

(From left) Maria Sanchez and James Sanchez march through Olmos Park.

I received my first gun – a .22-calibre long-range rifle – on my 12th birthday. On my 13th birthday, I got a single-shot 20-gauge shotgun, and on my 14th birthday, I got  a 20-gauge pump shotgun. I’ve been hunting countless times and am comfortable with and around guns. But I am fed up with the amount of senseless gun violence that we continue to allow in our country because of political leaders’ resistance to passing and enforcing common sense gun laws. 

On November 5, 2017, a man walked into the First Baptist Church in Sutherland Springs with a gun, killing 26 people and injuring 20 others. While I had seen news reports of mass shootings, this was the first one that was really close to home. 

The following weekend I decided to attend a gun show in San Antonio. The Sutherland Springs shooter did not obtain his weapon at a gun show, but I was aware that anyone could buy a gun at a gun show without undergoing a background check. I had never been to a gun show before, and I wanted to learn firsthand about the “gun show loophole.”   

Because the Sutherland Springs church shooter had used an AR-15 style semi-automatic rifle with high capacity magazines, I decided to price out that type of weapon at the gun show. I found them starting as low as $550. The AR-15 style of weapon is the same type that was used by the shooter in Dayton, Ohio last week to kill nine and wound an additional 27 people in just 32 seconds.

While inquiring about regulations, I learned that many of the dealers at the gun show that I attended were not federal firearms licensed dealers. They were operating as hobbyist gun collectors who are allowed to sell off part of their personal collections. Under current Texas law they are not required to perform background checks when selling their weapons. 

One of these unlicensed hobbyist gun vendors informed me of the basic rules. He told me that, in order for me to purchase a gun from him, I had to show him a government-issued ID listing a Texas residence because he is not allowed to sell to out-of-state buyers. He added that I had to be at least 21 years old to buy a handgun, and at least 18 years of age to buy a shotgun or rifle. There is no waiting period. You can walk out the door with your new gun as soon as the vendor has finished counting your cash or running your credit card. 

This same vendor also informed me that, if I am prohibited from owning a firearm for any reason, it was my responsibility as the buyer to comply with that law. He made it clear that he was under no obligation to inquire or confirm whether I – due to a criminal conviction for a violent offense, mental health history, etc. – am prohibited from purchasing firearms. 

When speaking to another hobbyist vendor, I asked how much he paid to rent a booth space. He said that it was $75 for a space with an eight-foot folding table for the weekend. This vendor had four folding tables completely covered with firearms, so he had spent $300 for a two-day opportunity to sell weapons out of his private collection. It seemed to be quite a few guns for someone who is just a hobbyist to have for sale. 

In Texas, you can sell up to four cars a year as an individual. If you want to sell five or more cars, you must become a licensed dealer. I assumed there would be a similar rule for selling guns. I asked how many guns he is allowed to sell in a year before he is required to apply for a federal firearms dealer license. The vendor didn’t know and wasn’t concerned about it.

I later did some research and learned that there is no limit to the number of firearms that you can sell without a federal firearms license, as long as you are selling out of your personal collection and not trying to make a profit on a regular basis. And you can do this without performing background checks.

You don’t even need to rent a table to sell at a gun show. Anyone who attends can bring in as many guns as they can carry. I learned that it is commonplace to assume that anyone carrying a gun at a gun show may be selling that gun, and it is perfectly acceptable to approach strangers and ask their price. Again, no background check required. You hand them the cash, they hand you the gun. More responsible sellers may ask one of the federal firearms licensed dealers at the show to process a buyer background check and document the sales transaction for a fee that typically ranges from $20 to $30.

 At the gun show that I attended, there were more hobbyist gun vendors than federal firearms licensed dealers. While I understand that there are many responsible gun hobbyists out there, for many, there is little incentive to conduct background checks on buyers. 

But background checks work. Over 170,000 gun sales were denied in 2017 due to background checks. What is the point of having a useful law on the books if you are going to allow so many ways to get around it?

We need to continue to talk about gun violence and gun laws and hold our elected officials accountable for not passing and enforcing common sense laws that help prevent guns from getting into the wrong hands. Requiring universal background checks might not stop all mass shootings, but it is a good place to start. 

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