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The gun-show loophole: Not about gun shows, and not a loophole

Dave Kleiner, of Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, sells antique guns at a gun show at the Crowne Plaza Hotel on January 5, 2013 in Stamford, Connecticut.

President Obama called for stronger gun control laws last night in his State of the Union address -- and one of the big ideas being talked about is closing what's called the "gun show loophole."

In many states, it's completely legal for a private seller -- you or me -- to sell a gun to someone without running a background check. Garen Wintemute, who heads the Violence Prevention Research Program at UC Davis, explains:

"No identification. No waiting period. No record. Cash on the table, and you're gone with the gun."

That kind of transaction does happen at gun shows, but it also happens outside them. It is easy to find buyers and sellers online, for instance.

Daniel Webster, who directs the Johns Hopkins Center for Gun Policy Research, says, for that reason, he avoids the term "gun show loophole."

"'Loophole makes it sound like it is a tiny, little exception," he says. "The reality is it is a huge gap in the law."

Last weekend, I attended a big gun show in Chantilly, Virginia. An ad read, "Get Your Guns While You Still Can!"

Jerry Cochran, a federally licensed firearms dealer who owns two gun shops, had a big booth there. Cochran said he avoids the term "gun show loophole," but for a different reason: It doesn't exist.

"People listen to the television and the radio, and they think that there's not a background check here, at the gun show. But there is. We've never sold a gun in the 34 years I've been in business without a background check," said Cochran.

Licensed dealers have to do that. But I spotted someone wandering the aisles with a handwritten "for sale" sign -- they were selling their own guns. What bothered Cochran was that many of them weren't licensed.

"If you're going to set up here on a weekly basis, and you're going to sell guns, you ought to have a license and do it the proper way," he said.

But the thing is, under current law, you can't get a federal firearms license if you only do business at gun shows. And if you don't have a license, you can't access the National Instant Criminal Background Check System.

About the author

David Gura is a reporter for Marketplace, based in the Washington, D.C. bureau.
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