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Prior to April 20th, 1999, it’s safe to say that a large segment of the American public had never heard of gun shows, or had heard of them but didn’t know what they were (thinking perhaps that they were akin to dog shows or car shows, i.e. places where people bring their collections for others to gawk at.) 4/20/1999, of course, was the day of the tragic and shocking massacre at Columbine High School in Colorado. The ensuing investigation that revealed that teenage killers Harris and Klebold purchased at least some of their guns from a private seller at a gun show in the Denver Metro area.

Following this revelation, anti-2nd amendment groups quickly and loudly denounced the “Gun show loophole” and ultimately succeeded in getting an amendment to the Colorado Constitution that requires background checks for all gun show sales (whereas previously only sales from a licensed dealer were subject to the instant-check requirement.) The gun-ignorant media also picked up on the “gun show loophole” meme and has trumpeted it loudly and repeatedly in the years since then.

I went to my first gun show around 1983, when I was 21 years old. I remember wandering through the county fairground building, marveling at the displays of firearms, accessories and ammo; the “horse trading” between buyer and seller; and the overall jovial atmosphere of civil commerce and the enthusiasm for armaments that gun owners know so well.

In the years since then, I’ve been to many gun shows, probably hundreds. I’ve lived in places where gun shows were a monthly occurrence, and others where they only happened quarterly but were so massive that a dedidcated shooter like me would routinely plan my weekend around the gun show, and where among my shooting friends, “See you at the gun show!” was a common goodbye.

As time has gone by, though, I’ve found myself less and less interested in the gun show experience. Time changes us all, of course, and I know one of the most pernicious (and common) afflictions of writers is that of “projection,” i.e. assuming that what motivates me, motivates you. But at least among the shooters I know, the popularity of gun shows has been diminishing, and I have some ideas as to why.

It would be tempting to blame the decline of gun shows on the double-barrelled assault they have received from activist groups and the media (and the activists would undoubtedly love to claim that, too.) But that’s giving them too much credit. For me, at least, my declining interest in gun shows can be traced to several distinct factors that have emerged over the years.

First, there were changes in the law. Prior to 1986, licensed Federal Firearms Licensees (FFL’s) could not sell in their “business” capacity at gun shows because the FFL only allowed a seller to sell at his specific place of business (shop or home) and nowhere else. In other words, prior to that law, all gun sales at gun shows were “private” sales. There were no 4473 forms to fill out and no background checks (this was long before the Brady/instant check law went into effect.)

Because of this, it seemed (to me) like there was more “parity” between buyers and sellers. Since most buyers were end-users (as opposed to dealers looking to re-sell), prices for sellers were better, and because sellers knew they wouldn’t have a chance to sell again until the next gun show, prices for buyers tended to be better, too. After dealers got into the game, it was just business as usual for them: Low ball prices when buying (because they were only buying to re-sell at a profit) and little or no negotiating on price when selling (because if they didn’t sell a gun at the gun show, they’d just sell it in the shop on Monday.)

After the dealers were allowed to deal out of gun shows, there quickly became two tiers of sellers at gun shows: Professional dealers (many of whom didn’t even own a shop, they just went from gun show to gun show) and regular shooters, who were often outmatched by the dealers’ prowess, cash reserves and inventory.

Another 1986 change in the laws had a dramatic effect on the advantages of a gun show. Starting with the Gun Control Act of 1968, ammunition sales were severely restricted. Mail-order sales were outlawed and dealers were required to keep a record of the sales of handgun ammunition. Gun shows, then, became great places to buy ammo in bulk as you could shop multiple sellers, and because dealers weren’t allowed to do business at gun shows, all sales were “private sales” where the record keeping requirements did not apply. The 1986 law removed most, if not all, of the federal restrictions on ammo sales and allowed for mail order selling of ammunition for the first time in almost 20 years.

The second blow to the gun show was the steady rise of the “big box” stores. Now, of course guns and ammo have been sold through department and variety stores for over a century. Heck, I bought my first gun from a J.C. Penny’s in Columbus, Georgia. But the “big box” phenomenon began to rise as the suburban shopping mall was declining in the late 80’s and early 90’s.

With their low wages, minimal staff and ability to buy in huge quantities, Big Box retailers like Wal Mart and K-Mart had economies of scale that could undercut the prices of any dealer, even a dealer who only sold at gun shows and had minimal overhead. By the early 90’s, mail-order outfits like Cabela’s and Gander Mountain were getting into the Big Box business themselves, and by the early 2000’s, the likes of Bass Pro Shops and Sportsman’s Warehouse joined the battle for the shooter’s dollar. These stores could offer discounted prices on guns, ammo, and a huge variety of accessories that were previously available primarily at gun shows or mail order catalogs. The stores were conveniently located in suburban shopping districts, and best of all, you didn’t have to pay five bucks to get in.

And the final factor is the internet. Not just because it allowed for the buying and selling of guns through online transactions (albeit conducted through an FFL dealer), but because the non-firearms accessories and ammo that used to be only available at gun shows (or only available at decent prices at gun shows) were now accessible to anyone with a dial-up connection.

The big-box and catalog stores naturally took to the internet to expand their sales, and when outfits like Gunbroker (the eBay of guns) became established, they provided not only sales opportunties, but also information – now a seller could find out what a gun was worth by seeing what others had paid for the same gun. Dealers could no longer low-ball when buying and then mark-up when selling because the internet gave buyers and sellers the ability to bypass the dealer entirely (except, perhaps, for the purpose of filling out paperwork.)

Obviously, gun shows are not going to disappear overnight. Many shooting enthusiasts enjoy the gun show experience and will continue to go (as I’m sure many TTAG commenters will state.) And in more rural parts of the country, where laws are more lax, where big box stores have yet to establish themselves, and where broadband internet is not widespread, gun shows are often the best place to buy/sell/trade guns. But the heyday of the gun show is in the past, not the future.

Dinosaurs ruled the planet for 160 million years, but they couldn’t adjust to a drastic climate shift and now they only exist in the rocks. Between legal/PR assaults from one end, and the economic assaults from competition on the other, gun shows may be feeling that first chill of extinction as well.

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  1. To be honest, if gun shows fell off of the planet, I don't know if I'm going to miss them. I cannot think of a single time where I actually bought a gun at a gun show. I've been to 4 in my life, and have only ever walked away with ammo or magazines. These weren't even great deals, I just felt that I should have bought something after paying the $15 entrance fee!

  2. I still think gun shows serve a purpose, but the almost complete take-over by dealers has hurt them badly. I've been going to shows on & off since the 1980's. I recall the morph from private booths to dealers taking place in the mid-90's (my area) but that could just be a regional thing. I recall certain shows also had live entertainment – demos and shooting tricks – on stage. Also, certain events had certain themes, and a careful observer could spot trends. One venue was generally weighted toward military arms and collectables. Another was very pistol oriented. One show in particular had more antique pump action .22 gallery guns in one spot than I've ever seen since. Sometimes you hit paydirt.

  3. You didn't attend shows in Richmond, VA over the past 2 years since Obama was elected if you think the crowds have diminished. I have been to the main sponsored shows at least once or twice a year since 2000 and after Obama was elected and leading to it in the nomination season, attendance rose noticeably. I mean a large exhibition hall had its large outdoor parking full and the grassy areas half full. Shoulder to shoulder inside and people buying, not browsing. A lot of cased ammo and ARs and semi-auto pistols selling.
    Guns shows are for blue collar, working men and a good percent guys like programmers and accountants and some doctors. It's men of all income, but they all are serious about their freedom to trade and buy as wthey wish.

  4. For me, the allure of gun shows was to actually see guns up close and personal that I’d only read about in magazines. Dealers in small cities typically carry only the most popular guns. To see something a little different, you’ve got to go to a REAL gun shop…or a gun show. The other draw? Price. I figured I should be able to go and score some real deals at a gun show. Going armed with a knowledge of prices (and a smartphone to settle any nagging doubts) and I found that a gun show is just about the worst place to find a deal on a gun. Frankly, I’d much rather find a mom and pop shop and give them my business. The nomads that travel the gun show circuit long ago stopped providing decent prices. Today, I go just to look around, see what’s going on, and kill some time looking at guns. Frankly, my time would be better spent driving around to find the next mom and pop shop with a real stock of weapons.

  5. Yeah, $7 admission per person plus $5 parking to see some guys hawking surplus GI AR-15 mags for $20 a pop and used 10/22’s for $200 each is why gun shows are dying.

    Way too overpriced.

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