For the first time since a state law took effect July 1, Virginia State Police were providing voluntary background checks for gun sales between private parties Saturday at a gun show at the Richmond Raceway Complex.
“Under the new law, the Virginia State Police have the authority to perform background checks on behalf of private sellers who feel it is their civic duty to ensure they are safely selling or transferring firearms,” a Friday news release from Gov. Terry McAuliffe’s office said.
Brian J. Moran, Virginia’s secretary of public safety and homeland security, was at the Richmond Gun Show — his first, he said — to promote the service, which will be available at all gun shows and costs $2 per check.
“I’m hoping people will avail themselves of background checks,” said Moran, a former Arlington County prosecutor and state legislator. “It’s something the public supports and law-abiding gun owners should support as well.”
Though the show, one of the largest in the state, drew thousands to the raceway between 9 a.m. and 5 p.m., only a handful of private sellers opted for the checks. State police said three private sale background checks were conducted all day.
“The three who requested the checks were very appreciative,” said Corinne Geller, a state police spokeswoman. “Hopefully as the word spreads about this voluntary service, more Virginians will take advantage of it.”
All three were approved, Geller said.
Federally licensed gun dealers, including those selling at gun shows, have long been required to have background checks conducted prior to selling firearms. Gun control advocates have long pushed for mandatory background checks for sales between private parties.
“We support mandatory (background checks), but the legislature doesn’t,” Moran said. “In the world of getting something done, this is as good as we could do.”
Annette Elliott, the show’s organizer, said that July is usually slow but that attendance and sales could surge after the killing of five police officers in Dallas on Thursday night, similar to what has happened after other mass shootings.
“I don’t know if we’ll have a little spike because of it,” she said, estimating attendance would range from 4,000 to 5,000 over Saturday and Sunday.
Buyers, prompted by the specter of new gun legislation pushed through in the wake of a mass shooting, have often flocked to purchase guns that they fear might be banned or restricted. State police data bear that out — though Congress hasn’t passed gun control legislation in the wake of recent mass shootings. Geller said the agency processed 800 more background checks Friday, a day after the attack in Dallas, than it did last year on the same day.
Elliott could not provide a breakdown of how many sellers at the show were licensed firearms dealers and how many were private, though she said there are usually comparatively few of the latter.
That said, they weren’t hard to find inside the show, held in two cavernous rooms full of thousands of firearms of all makes, models and calibers. Two private sellers who declined to provide their names, with the first citing a fear of thieves breaking into his house to steal his guns if he were publicly identified, said they would be unlikely to use the service except in unusual cases. Still, both liked having the voluntary option.
“I think it’s a great idea, because if there’s any question in my mind I will ask for one,” the first seller said.
The same seller said he always asks for identification to verify Virginia residency and keeps records of sales. Many of the people they sell to already have a concealed handgun permit and thus, both men argued, have already had to pass a background check.
“If they have a concealed handgun permit, that answers that question,” the first seller said.
The second seller, gently chided by his colleague as a “liberal,” said he doesn’t “mind the idea” of universal background checks, adding that he would “feel awful” if a gun he sold was used to commit a crime.
“But they’ve got to make it easy,” he said, adding that background checks can leave sales in limbo for a few days, which isn’t much good to people who sell and buy at gun shows. “I like guns. … I’ve been around them my whole life. … It’s a hobby. And I resent having laws passed that punish me when I’m not the problem.”
Jerry Cochran, owner of Trader Jerry’s, which has locations in Cedar Bluff and Salem, started his business in 1982 and says he has never sold a gun without a background check, even under what has come to be known as the “Charleston loophole,” which allows a purchase to go forward if the FBI’s National Instant Background Check System cannot complete a background check in three days. Dylann Roof, accused of killing nine people in a Charleston, S.C., church last year, should have been ineligible to buy the gun he allegedly used in the killings because of a drug arrest, FBI Director James Comey has said.
Cochran said concealed-carry permits are no substitute for background checks, since they’re valid for five years and may not reflect a holder’s most recent criminal history.
“A concealed-carry permit doesn’t entitle you to buy a gun,” he said, adding that he would support a law on mandatory background checks. “But that will never happen.”
Cochran said the current system works, referencing a man who came into his store on a Saturday and bought a gun. By Monday, when the same customer returned to purchase another gun, a felony arrest warrant had been issued for him and the second sale was blocked. That’s as long as sales take place within the state system, which applies to federally licensed gun dealers.
“You can’t make them do it,” he said of private sellers. “But I can’t imagine an individual that wouldn’t do it.”
One private seller told Moran as the secretary made his rounds that he didn’t have to sell a gun to somebody if he “didn’t like the look of him.”
“I don’t know how foolproof a system that is,” Moran said later. “I’d rather have a background check done than a momentary interaction with an individual.”
He added that sellers’ reliance on concealed-carry permits was also problematic.
State police Capt. T.W. Turner, commander of the agency’s Criminal Justice Information Services Division, said the state police, which maintain oversight over Virginia’s concealed-carry program, regularly monitor arrest records to determine when concealed handgun permits should be revoked and notify the issuing court, though that might not prevent someone from walking around with the permit.
“Until we have mandatory background checks, we’re going to have to proceed in an incremental manner,” Moran said. “We’ll learn from this law and how to improve it. It will have some intended and some unintended consequences.”
Among the people unsurprised by the lack of enthusiasm among private sellers for the checks was Andy Goddard, the legislative director for the pro-gun control Virginia Center for Public Safety.
“The voluntary thing, we figured that, well, it can’t do any harm, though it probably won’t do any good,” said Goddard, whose son Colin was wounded in the 2007 massacre at Virginia Tech. “I’m not surprised that you didn’t see a whole line of people waiting to do it. ... The thing we hoped was that we would get some data back on the number of times that people were denied. That would bolster the idea that it ought to be mandatory.”
Goddard was also among the gun control advocates incensed by McAuliffe’s compromise with GOP lawmakers that reversed an earlier decision by the attorney general to refuse to recognize concealed-carry permits from states with looser rules than Virginia.
He suggested the private gun sellers may be waiting for others to try out the system first.
“The gun lobby is notorious for eating their own,” he said.