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What Exactly is The Gun Show Loophole? preview image
Jul 26 2023
8 min read

What Exactly is The Gun Show Loophole?

Header photo taken at Wanenmacher Gun Show, Tulsa, Oklahoma. The largest gun show in the world. Credit: Caleb Long / CC BY-SA

Imagine walking around an intricate maze of booths, looking at gun after gun. You find one you really like, and you pull out your wallet, offering what you think is fair. The seller hems and haws a bit, then finally relents.

You hand him the cash and he hands you the gun. That’s it. No documentation, no further questions asked.

If you’ve ever been to a gun show, you know that it’s a fun and exciting opportunity to see things in person. You may even get to hold something you’ve been interested in buying but haven’t a chance to lay your hands on yet.

Lucky for you, there’s a gun show loophole that you may not know about. Normally, when you purchase a firearm, you’re required to submit to a background check. At a gun show, that’s not the case.

What Happens at a Gun Show?

A gun show is a place where enthusiasts from around the world gather to look at guns and everything related. You’ll see a spread of survival knives, ammo, accessories, t-shirts, buttons, and more.

There are dozens of gun shows in the United States every weekend, in all regions. They’re great places to get all of the survival, competition, and fun gear you need to enjoy your firearms to the fullest.

However, there are some limitations to buying and selling guns at gun shows. Despite the gun show loophole, there are instances in which a background check may be required.

Background checks at gun shows

criminal background check form

Federal law requires all licensed dealers in all states to conduct background checks when selling a firearm. However, gun show laws vary by state, as do requirements for unlicensed or private sellers.

In fact, 32 states do not require any background checks from private sellers at all, while seven states only require background checks on handguns. The remaining states require background checks on all firearms, even when purchased from a private party.

Even when a state does not require a background check from a private seller, the venue hosting the gun show may have a stricter policy. Private sellers may also contract with a third-party by choice to have them run background checks on all buyers.

For your protection

Even in circumstances where the background check isn’t required, many sellers are still very particular about who purchases their guns. Many will say that they never sell guns to people they don’t know.

The people who run in gun show circles are familiar with each other. Especially when the buyers and sellers are local, they typically know one another or have heard their friends talk about people they deal with regularly.

Word of mouth is a powerful thing, and in a tight knit group of gun owners, you can be sure news will travel fast if someone seems untrustworthy.

Gun sellers at shows often will turn you away if they don’t know you, have never met you, or have never heard of you. They may sell guns without background checks, but they don’t want it to come back to them if a gun they sold is used to commit a crime.

You can’t always be sure how a gun is going to be used, but it’s a small way in which sellers do attempt to ensure they always know where the gun is going and who will be using it.

Where does the responsibility fall?

At a high level, policing the illegal purchase of firearms falls to the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms (ATF). The ATF monitors the illegal use and trafficking of firearms, among other things. They also monitor the illegal use or storage of explosives, acts of terrorism, arson, bombings, and the illegal diversion of tobacco products and alcohol.

The ATF investigates and recommends prosecution of all offenders of these laws. As it relates to firearms, the ATF issues licenses and conducts inspections to ensure their proper ownership and use.

However, there are opposing views on who exactly should be responsible for these transactions and making them legal. Despite what the state or federal government regulations say, many private sellers conduct background checks anyway.

Concerned citizens will also agree that it’s up to all of us to ensure we use our firearms responsibly and store them properly when they’re not in use.

History of Gun Shows

gun show sign in field on billboard

Gun shows have been around for decades. For as long as firearms have existed, people have been trying to find ways to buy, sell, and trade for what they want. That’s basic human nature.

Before 1968, anyone could sell guns at a gun show. However, the Gun Control Act of 1968 changed that. Now, firearms dealers who held a Federal Firearm License (FFL) were prohibited at gun shows. They were only allowed to sell guns at the address listed on their license.

Gun shows quickly changed in their dynamic. They were now comprised of all private party sellers, reducing the amount of inventory, but making it easier for buyers to make purchases without all the red tape.

The Firearm Owners Protection Act of 1986 loosened those restrictions again. Sellers with an FFL could now transfer items at a gun show again, as long as they followed federal regulations for the sale of a firearm by a registered business.

These days, it’s an even spread of licensed sellers and private parties at gun shows. They’re all allowed to buy and sell, as long as they follow federal and state regulations for their classification.

Is the Gun Show Loophole Real?

The political term “Gun show loophole” might have you thinking – Is it legal to sell a gun privately? Well, the term is actually used to refer to private sellers selling firearms, especially at gun shows. Because federal law doesn’t require private parties to conduct background checks, they can sell to whomever they choose.

While that’s not true in all states, it is the case in most.

Private parties also aren’t required to ask a buyer for identification or record the sale at all. This, unfortunately, makes gun shows sound pretty shady in the eyes of those who are against firearms altogether.

Gun shows, and the private selling of firearms, is not illegal, but the law also doesn’t do us any favors.

However, as we’ve already discussed, many private sellers will do these things anyway. Not only for their own records, but to ensure that they know exactly who they’re selling to.

This gun show loophole has been in existence for as long as there have been gun shows, but it wasn’t always called that. Those who are politically minded have coined the term to refer to the sale of firearms by private parties at gun shows.

This loophole is an important distinction between licensed and private sellers. When you’re buying or selling a firearm, following the law should be the first thing on your mind.

How do Online Sales Work?


There are three different ways to sell guns online, and each comes with its own set of rules. Some require background checks while others don’t.

Licensed online sellers

There are websites that act like the online version of a physical gun shop. They include,, and There are also major retailers with firearm departments that sell their inventory online, like or

Much like a licensed seller at a physical gun shop, you’ll go through a background check if you purchase a gun from one of the licensed online retailers.

Online auction sites

There are other websites like that host auctions for firearms. Online auction sites are for both licensed and private sellers, so the rules will vary depending on where you live and who you’re buying from. Some may require background checks while others don’t.

However, in this case, it’s important to understand shipping restrictions if you are unable to facilitate the firearm exchange in person.

FedEx and UPS will not ship firearms between individuals at all. They must first be sent to an FFL facility where the buyer goes through a background check. Then the FFL facility can ship via FedEx or UPS.

The USPS allows the mailing of shotguns or rifles within state lines as long as it is unloaded. However, there’s one more caveat. These types of sales have to occur in a state, or between two states, that allows for transfers between unlicensed individuals without a background check.

Marketplaces that facilitate exchanges

Then there are websites that simply facilitate exchanges. They’re online marketplaces that allow private parties to list their firearms for sale for buyers to see. The most popular is

These sites are like classified ads for firearms. The site assumes no responsibility for any of the sales that are arranged on the site and explicitly says that it is up to the buyers and the sellers to conduct safe and legal transactions.

Does this create similar issues?

There are some issues with purchasing firearms online from an auction site or a marketplace. There’s been evidence that these sites are vulnerable to fraud. It’s up to the buyer to understand the regulations, do the research, and conduct these transactions safely and legally.

Notable Opinions

As with everything else in our world today, there are many opinions on the subject of the gun show loophole. For instance, the Violence Policy Center believes it’s critical to close the gun show loophole, and even NRA Vice President Wayne LaPierre believes we should do a better job of closing it effectively.

Because gun safety is such a hot topic, most politicians have at least some sort of agenda for how to curb gun violence. When Obama was in office, he attempted to educate rather than implement new policies. He thought it was important to limit who can sell as a private party, but more so warned of the dangers of selling privately simply to avoid conducting a background check.

Most republicans, like Trump, support the NRA and want to protect licensed sellers from lawsuits that municipalities file asking for compensation for gun deaths.

The Verdict

The gun show loophole may be better described as a way for private gun sales to occur. Gun shows are a popular place for unlicensed sellers to convene, but it really applies to any private party deal.

Thus far, there’s a huge disparity among political administrations. They’ve taken actions, big and small, but none have been successful in narrowing the loophole yet.

While the gun show loophole isn’t inherently bad, it leaves everything up to the individual parties engaging in the deal to keep things safe and legal.

Brady Kirkpatrick photo Brady Kirkpatrick is the founder of, the #1 online gun search engine. Recognizing the challenges of finding the right firearm at the right price, Brady built a platform to simplify the process, comparing prices across hundreds of online dealers and providing valuable content from trustworthy bloggers. His commitment to user-centricity and innovation has shaped into a comprehensive resource for gun enthusiasts. In addition to Gun Made, Brady has also lent his firearm expertise to an array of renowned publications, such as The Truth About Guns, CrossBreed Holsters, Cheaper than Dirt, 19FortyFive, We Are The Mighty, and many others.


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