CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- As record crowds flood gun shows in North Carolina and across the nation, two top law enforcement officials in Charlotte say they support closing the “gun show loophole” that allows unregulated private sales at the events.
“I think any exchange of a firearm should require somebody to have some document showing they’ve had a background investigation,” Sheriff Chipp Bailey told the Observer.
Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Chief Rodney Monroe also said he is concerned by private gun show sales that require no background checks. A third official, Earl Woodham, spokesman for the Charlotte division of the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives said he could not comment on changes to gun laws but did say private sales hamper criminal investigations.
North Carolina handgun sales are regulated for both private sellers and licensed dealers. A state law requires all sellers to make sure a handgun buyer has a pistol permit. Getting a permit requires the holder to undergo a background check from the local sheriff’s office before agreeing to the sale.
But there is no such requirement for the private sale of long guns, which includes hunting rifles, shotguns and popular AR-15 semiautomatic rifles.
At a recent show in Fayetteville that drew hours-long lines, private sellers traded guns for cash. Prices were written on cardboard taped to their chests or on the firearms slung over their shoulders. Their transactions happened in aisles or corners near the more organized booths of licensed dealers.
One man near the show entrance hoisted his own AR-15s into the air.
“No background checks! $1,500!” the private seller shouted.
Gun rights advocates say sales, prices and show attendance have all skyrocketed in the months since the December massacre of 20 schoolchildren and six adults in Connecticut.
Buyers are fearful of President Obama’s proposed legislation to ban certain assault weapons and require background checks for all purchases.
Debate over private sales comes as the Metrolina Expo Tradeshow Center prepares for the Dixie Gun & Knife Show beginning Saturday. Show organizers said the event is expected to draw thousands.
What is the gun show loophole?
The gun show loophole appeared in 1986, when Congress passed the Firearm Owners Protection Act that differentiates between licensed gun dealers and private sellers.
Dealers, under the federal law, must perform background checks on all purchasers, refuse to sell guns to convicted felons or other people on the “prohibited purchasers” list and keep records of all sales.
Private sellers only have to follow applicable state laws.
In North Carolina, residents have to check for pistol permits before they sell handguns but they can legally sell long guns with no checks.
Today, gun shows draw licensed dealers and private sellers.
John Wilson, manager of the American Gun Shows website that posts event information, said North Carolina is in the middle of the pack for the number of such events each year.
States like Texas, California and Florida all hold more shows than North Carolina, Wilson said. But others like New Jersey, New York and Oregon have far fewer.
His website currently lists 11 upcoming shows in North Carolina.
Private individuals make up between 10 percent and 20 percent of the gun sellers at N.C. shows, according to law enforcement and show sellers.
Debate over private sales
Gerald Burchfield, a 64-year-old private seller and disabled Vietnam veteran, said trading and selling guns at shows are like therapy to him.
“It’s wrong to put restrictions on private sellers. I should be able to sell my own guns as a hobby if I choose,” said Burchfield, who attended a Feb. 2 gun show at Fayetteville’s Crown Coliseum.
Carthage resident Garrett Lynn, 25, sold his AR-15 for $1,000 to a licensed dealer within the first few hours of the show. But he said selling to an individual without a background check should be his right.
“I’m not going to say they’re not going to be some felons in here walking around to get guns,” Lynn said. “But most of the time, it’s not.”
Lumberton resident Curtis Floyd, 24, said if he bought a gun, he’d use a private seller.
“It’s good you can buy a gun without going through all that crazy paperwork,” said Floyd, who had a scar on his face where he said a bullet had struck him during a shoot-out at a house party several years earlier. “Everybody needs a gun, even a felon” needs to protect himself.
Floyd said he had been involved in several shootings in past years and wanted a gun for protection. Floyd’s criminal record shows he was found guilty of illegally carrying a concealed gun in 2010 and a year later found guilty of three counts of assault on a female, which are misdemeanors.
At least one private seller at the Fayetteville gun show endorsed checking the backgrounds of customers. Other licensed dealers and customers also said they supported stricter regulations on private sellers.
“I don’t think guns kill people; I think people do,” said 30-year-old Darren Deese, a Pembroke resident and full-time National Guard member. “But I think it’s alarming a felon could just walk in here and buy a gun.”
Adam Queen, manager of American Tactical and Pawn Shop in Shelby, and dealers at MMG Target Enterprises in Charlotte said private sellers hurt their business.
“Many, many times customers will come up and say, ‘Well, they’re not taking a permit, so why do I have to give you one,” Queen said in a phone interview. “That hurts our business — when they can go 5 foot from us and buy the same gun without a permit.”
Law enforcement concerns
Chief Monroe and Sheriff Bailey both say unregulated private sales make it easier for criminals to get guns. The ATF says it makes it harder for authorities to trace weapons during criminal investigations.
“This gap in the background check system ... puts officers at risk,” CMPD spokesman Robert Tufano said in a statement issued for the chief. “Chief Monroe supports legislation that requires background checks for all firearms sales at gun shows.”
But national and state gun rights groups say private sales should not be regulated because it’s an individual right to sell or trade a personal firearm.
Gun rights advocates reject the term “loophole,” since all private sales are unregulated, not just the ones at gun shows.
“These are not commercial transactions,” said Sterling Burnett, a senior fellow at the pro-gun National Center for Policy Analysis. “People selling guns from their private collection – that’s never been regulated by the federal government and it was never intended to be.”
However, a national bipartisan group of mayors advocating for stricter gun laws published a report that said North Carolina was among 10 states that needed to strengthen it’s gun laws.
The Mayors Against Illegal Guns group studied trace data publicized by the ATF between 2006 and 2009. In every year, North Carolina was among the top 10 states to supply guns used in crimes around the country, in part because it had not passed laws to regulate private sales, the report concluded.
And several years earlier, the ATF conducted an in-depth study of trace information on guns used in crimes in the Charlotte-Mecklenburg area in 1999. The report showed that 570 of 619 guns used in area crimes — more than 92 percent — had changed hands at least once before reaching the people who committed the crimes.
Closing the loophole?
Sheriff Bailey said the majority of transactions at gun shows are handled properly: Several years ago, deputies spent time undercover at gun shows in the county, making sure that private sellers and licensed dealers were checking for pistol permits. That operation, which lasted about two years, only netted about 10 arrests for illegal transfers, the sheriff said.
But Bailey said it’s important for law enforcement to know when guns change hands. He says the best way to do that is a state law requiring residents to get sheriff’s office permits for long gun sales.
“If I were selling a gun to somebody that would give me peace of mind that the person who’s going to buy the gun has had a background check,” Bailey said.
In recent years, federal legislators have tried and failed to change the law to put more restrictions on private sellers. Some states, including California, Colorado, Oregon, New York, Illinois and Rhode Island, have drafted their own laws to close the loop by requiring background checks for all sales at gun shows, according to the Coalition to Stop Gun Violence.
Last week, a proposal to require private sellers to perform background checks on gun buyers at Virginia shows failed to pass in the state’s Senate. There is currently no similar legislation in North Carolina.
In Charlotte, Rick Lappi, the general manager of the Metrolina Expo, said he is unconcerned about unregulated private sales as he prepares for thousands to attend the gun show this weekend.
“From our standpoint, as long as it’s within the law, we’re good with it,” Lappi said.