Fewer than two dozen private sellers of firearms have requested voluntary background checks be conducted on their customers at 23 gun shows in Virginia since a law took effect in July that Gov. Terry McAuliffe hailed as part of a historic, bipartisan gun safety deal.
At gun shows across the state from July 9 to Oct. 23, 21 private sellers opted for the checks.
None of those checks resulted in a transaction being denied because the buyer was a person prohibited from buying a firearm, such as a felon, a person convicted of domestic violence, or someone who had been committed involuntarily to a mental health facility, according to data from the Virginia Firearms Transaction Center, operated by Virginia State Police.
By comparison, 12,606 mandatory background checks were performed by federally licensed firearms dealers at the 23 shows, and 110 of those people were denied the purchase of a weapon, the transaction center said.
Despite the low number of voluntary checks, Virginia Public Safety Secretary Brian J. Moran said in a statement that he was “encouraged by the results and will continue to remain steadfast in educating Virginians on the importance of this law.”
But leaders on both sides of the gun control debate said they were not surprised by the small numbers and have been left unimpressed by the measure.
“The vast majority of gun owners have no interest in background checks for private sales, including both voluntary, as we currently have in Virginia, and ‘involuntary universal background checks,’” said Philip Van Cleave, president of the Virginia Citizens Defense League, one of Virginia’s largest gun rights groups.
“This experiment with voluntary background checks proves the point,” he said.
“It also shows a statistic used by gun control groups — that 90 percent of people want such background checks — to be pure baloney,” Van Cleave added.
“The minuscule number of voluntary background checks since July indicates to me that the General Assembly needs to take this law off the books and use the money to go after violent criminals on our streets instead.”
Andrew Goddard, legislative director for the Virginia Center for Public Safety, a gun control group, also was disappointed in the numbers but for different reasons.
He said he’s not surprised the numbers are so low, because the only people who likely are agreeable to such checks are private sellers who are conscientious enough to be concerned about selling a gun to someone who is not legally allowed to possess one.
“The fact that there have been no denials, in this small sample of sales, is also something that would be expected, since the buyer has obviously agreed to be checked, which would self-select people with clean backgrounds,” Goddard said.
“It will only be when these checks are mandatory, or take place on a large scale, that we are likely to see denials. Voluntary compliance is not the way to effectively stop sales between private seller and ineligible buyers.”
Goddard said the only “good news” that can be gleaned from the data is that voluntary checks have not infringed on anyone’s Second Amendment rights, nor have they shut down the activity of private sellers at gun shows — “both doomsday predictions of those who opposed even this baby step in legislation.”
Gun show customers can purchase firearms one of two ways: from a federally licensed firearms dealer who also may have a store but brings weapons for sale at the gun shows and is required to perform background checks on buyers; or from a private seller, someone who has a personal collection of firearms they wish to sell.
The latter can sell his or her firearms without a license or background check, and there is no limit to the number of personal weapons they can sell.
Of the 23 gun shows since July 1, more than half, or 12, had no voluntary background checks conducted between private parties.
The largest number of voluntary checks occurred at the Chantilly Dulles Expo Center, with five conducted July 29-31 and three conducted Sept. 30-Oct. 2. Three also were conducted July 9-10 at the Richmond Raceway Complex gun show in Henrico County, statistics show.
Mike Matthews, senior supervisor in the Virginia Firearms Transaction Center, said he has noticed what appears to be a developing trend: The large majority of the voluntary checks being conducted are occurring in the state’s Northern Virginia and Hampton Roads regions.
The high percentage can be attributed partly to the larger volume of gun shows held in those regions, but Matthews believes that private sellers in such places as the Roanoke-Salem area, Hillsville, Fishersville and Augusta County are “not as worried about the person they’re selling their firearm to.”
“It just appears that way to me,” Matthews said.
However, “there does seem to be some people that are really interested in (having the checks done),” Matthews said. Fifteen of the 21 checks were performed in the Northern Virginia localities of Chantilly, Dale City and Prince William County and in the Hampton Roads cities of Hampton and Virginia Beach.
Only four voluntary checks have been performed at three gun shows in central Virginia.
The Virginia Firearm Transaction Center technicians who perform the gun show checks have estimated that the majority of private sellers using the service are 50 to 65 years old, Matthews said, while most of the buyers are in their late 20s or early 30s.
For whatever reason, it also appears that fewer private gun owners are selling their firearms at gun shows than were doing so two years ago, Matthews said.
“You don’t see the sellers walking around with the big sign that says, ‘For sale, $300 cash,’ like you used to,” Matthews said. “It used to be that you couldn’t walk down the aisle without running into somebody that was selling a gun. And now, not so much.”
Matthews said some private sellers may have been “scared off” when President Barack Obama announced a series of gun control measures in January that were to be implemented by executive order.
One would require anyone who is “engaged in the business” of selling firearms to obtain a federal license and conduct background checks, regardless of where the guns are sold.
But Obama’s order did not specify a definitive threshold number of firearms that triggers the license requirement; U.S. Attorney General Loretta Lynch has been quoted in news accounts that it could be as few as one or two, depending on the circumstances under which the person sells the gun.
“I don’t know if that scared people off,” Matthews said. “It’s possible — to just have the threat of a federal charge placed against you because you’re trying to sell your firearms.”
Matthews said the percentage of private firearms sales at gun shows is smaller than many people might think.
He estimated that perhaps 15 to 20 private sales occur on average at a weekend gun show over two days out of 600 to 800 total transactions — the great majority of which are conducted by licensed dealers who are required to perform background checks.
“This is just an estimate of me walking around the show and what I see,” Matthews said. “I don’t think the number is as big as people make it out to be.”
Matthews said he saw only three private sellers at last weekend’s gun show at Caroline County’s Meadow Event Park.
He said more private sellers may opt for voluntary background checks as the law becomes more familiar. That’s what happened when the firearms transaction center began offering a service at gun shows to check whether firearms being sold by private sellers had been reported lost or stolen, he said.
“The first couple of months, it was hardly anything,” Matthews said. “Then all of a sudden it caught on and word got out, and more and more dealers were realizing, hey, we need to start doing this. So I think (the voluntary checks) is something that will probably grow.”
“Will it grow leaps and bounds to where we’re looking at 50 or 60 a month?” he added. “That’s going to be a ways down” the road.