Illustration by Taylor Callery
In early February, I found a man willing to sell me an Italian submachine gun with a fifty-round magazine, no questions asked.
The 9mm Spectre M4 was one among thousands of weapons up for grabs at a February 6 gun show in West Bend, Wisconsin. A particularly fearsome firearm with pistol and forward-vertical grips, it is capable of firing up to 150 bullets per minute.
Used by Italian special forces, the M4 was one of nineteen firearms outlawed in 1994 under the federal assault rifle ban, which expired a decade later. Now, in 2016, it’s a loophole away from prohibited hands.
“You can pick it up,” the seller, a tall man with a seemingly endless string of Obama jokes, tells me, apparently sensing my reluctance.
But I can’t pick it up, not legally, my lawyer has advised. With felony drug possession and bail jumping charges pending against me, it is a federal crime for me to buy the gun and for the tall man at the gun show to sell it to me.
The law, however, exempts private sellers from running background checks on people like me. As long as they aren’t aware, or don’t suspect, that they’re making an illegal sale, there is little either party has to fear.
No business card, no company, no paperwork.
“Do you do background checks?” I ask, practically waving a huge red flag.
He shakes his head.
“No, no,” he says. “We’re private-party sellers.”
Gun-control advocates applauded President Barack Obama’s January 5 announcement that he was taking executive action to close the notorious gun-show loophole, explaining that federal law applies to everyone “in the business of selling guns.”
“We know we can’t stop every act of violence, every act of evil in the world,” Obama said during the news conference at which he cried for the victims of the mass shooting at Sandy Hook. “But maybe we could try to stop one act of evil, one act of violence.”
Predictably, the measures sparked outrage among Republicans and gun-control opponents, who accused the President of usurping Congress’s legislative authority. Senate Republicans on an appropriations subcommittee summoned Attorney General Loretta Lynch to Capitol Hill.
“The American people are fearful that President Obama is trying to strip them of their Second Amendment rights and end-run Congress,” said Senator Richard Shelby, the Republican subcommittee chair from Alabama. “The Constitution won’t allow for it.”
Despite the drumbeat from conservatives over the last seven years about Obama coming for their guns, the President’s executive actions featured no new legislation, regulations, or amendments. In fact, they bring surprisingly little change.
They will, however, help bolster the National Instant Criminal Background Check System by including those with documented mental illness, encouraging states to provide residents’ complete criminal histories, and hiring more than 200 additional examiners.
But even a beefed-up background check system won’t keep the plunderbund of felons, spousal abusers, drug addicts, and the violently unstable from exploiting loopholes to avoid checks.
Under a Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives (ATF) rule that goes into effect July 13, individuals will no longer be able to avoid background checks by purchasing firearms through trusts or shell companies, which gun control advocates consider a victory.
“This is a solid one,” says Ladd Everitt, director of the Coalition to Stop Gun Violence, a nonprofit representing nearly fifty national organizations. “It doesn’t need any appropriations and it will prevent a lot of people from getting these weapons.”
But the gun-show loophole is more or less intact.
Rather than set a threshold that would trigger a licensure requirement for private sellers, Obama has instead taken aim at “anyone engaged in the business of selling firearms.” Obama noted that convictions for selling as few as one or two guns have been upheld “when other factors were present,” such as business cards or selling at multiple shows.
The ATF has long defined a private seller as one who “only makes occasional sales” or who “sells all or part” of a “personal collection of firearms.” But after Obama’s announcement, the agency began advising that “anyone who sells a firearm, whether it is one or 100,” must conduct a background check.
Whether this applies to all sellers at gun shows remains unclear, however, as does the question of whether the ATF has the resources to enforce the new rules.
“We need to appreciate that the ATF is so politically weak it can’t even get a permanent director,” says Everitt. “Are they really going to be able to get this done? And how much heart will the U.S. Attorney’s Office put into prosecuting cases the ATF does make?”
According to a 2014 report from the Government Accountability Office, staffing at the ATF is at its lowest levels in a decade due to a hiring freeze and stagnant funding. The 200 new employees the ATF is set to hire won’t offset the 500 ATF employees eligible to retire over the next couple of years.
The agency has just 800 agents to police 139,000 licensed gun dealers. Already, 80 percent of the ATF’s annual caseload is firearms-related, with a majority of these cases involving the illegal sale of firearms to prohibited people.
“We’re a small agency with a big mission,” says agency spokeswoman Janice Kemp.
On Friday, January 8, three days after Obama unveiled his gun-control initiatives, it is business as usual at a gun show in Waukesha, Wisconsin. The show at the local expo center—one of ten such events in Wisconsin in January alone—hosts roughly 400 vendors hawking everything from silencers and armor-piercing rounds to pastel-colored pistols and sniper rifles.
By the time the doors for the three-day event open at 3 p.m., the line of people waiting to get in wraps all the way down a long hallway and back again out the door. Among the dozens of early arrivals are The Progressive’s associate editor Bill Lueders, and me. We barely begin our exploration of the three large rooms full of merchandise when a vendor sizes us up and asks, “Are you guys reporters?”
Gun sellers are a suspicious bunch. Few will answer questions from self-identified reporters; fewer still provide their names. A man selling AK-47s says it’s because “everyone’s afraid.” He adds, “It’s scary when you have a tyrant in the White House who wants to take your guns.”
More than an event, a gun show in many ways is a celebration of a shared worldview, where the threats are as constant as the need for vigilance. But there is more—a kind of gleeful, in-your-face assertion of rights by an oppressed class: white men with guns.
Spread among the lethal weaponry is a lot of unnerving kitsch. Bumper stickers warn of dogs that bite Democrats and yard signs declare that warning shots won’t be wasted on liberals. One bumper sticker at the Waukesha show reads: Gun Control Means Hitting Your Target. A T-shirt advises: When in Doubt, Empty the Magazine.
There are barbeque sauce, candy bars, World War II swag, and facsimiles of the Winchesters that felled scores of Native Americans as America won the West. One vendor is selling Trump for President T-shirts as well as one depicting the silhouette of a guy in a hoodie and the message, Live Like A Thug, Die Like a Thug.
To defend the gun-show vision of America is to take up arms against those who have overrun it—and, incidentally, to hand over some cash to vendors at the show.
“Absolutely nothing has changed,” a voice crackles over a loudspeaker. “Nothing.” Obama’s new rules, the voice assures, “will be tied up in the courts until after the federal election.” Then comes the sales pitch: “If you’re short of ammunition, now’s the time to buy it. You may not be able to get it [later on].”
About an hour later, the same voice announces that the new rules are “not even written.” But still, “because nobody knows what will happen, if there’s any guns, any ammunition you want, why pass it up?”
The voice behind these announcements belongs to Jim Fendry, founder and long-time head of the Wisconsin Pro-Gun Movement, based in Greendale, a suburb of Milwaukee. Affable and articulate, Fendry, a former police officer, says gun control measures unfairly target good guys like him, while doing little to stop lawbreakers. Plus, there is always the threat that such measures will lead to jack-booted government thugs taking everybody’s guns away.
“Anytime the government knows who owns a particular class of gun—when there is a change in government—they can confiscate a particular class of gun,”
A national firearm registry like the one Fendry fears has been outlawed since 1986’s Firearm Owners’ Protection Act, except for a very small class of weapons including machine guns and short-barreled rifles, for which registration is required. This reporting rule dates back to the National Firearms Act of 1934, and has thus far not spurred any national firearms confiscation program.
But Fendry sees no reason to stop worrying, given current political realities. “Who would’ve thought in the past that the Commander-in-Chief would ignore the Constitutional separation of powers?” he asks.
At one point, during an interview with a TV reporter, Fendry is asked, “Don’t kids have a right to not be shot?”
“Certainly,” Fendry replies. “But we’ve come up with an answer to that that people who don’t have guns don’t want to hear: You should have someone there to stop it.”
Fendry takes this question in stride, but another attendee is incensed by the thought that children’s lives matter more than gun-owners’ rights.
“I am so fucking tired of hearing, ‘How many more first graders have to die?’ ” the man fumes to his female companion as they exit the building. “First graders die all the time, every day, in car crashes. Where’s the executive order taking away cars?”
Felons have been prohibited from owning firearms since Congress passed the Gun Control Act of 1968, but licensed dealers weren’t required to perform criminal background checks until the passage of the Brady Handgun Violence Prevention Act of 1993.
That law led to a dramatic decrease in gun dealers with active licenses, from 246,984 in 1993 to 55,431 in 2014. During this same period, the number of licenses issued to gun collectors—who like private sellers are exempt from the background check rules—spiked, from 16,635 to 63,301, according to ATF statistics.
Most sellers at gun shows are federally licensed and do conduct background checks. They have the buyer fill out a form and call in the information. The whole process usually takes less than an hour.
Some sellers tell me they will not sell to anyone who asks questions about the background check. “There’s only one reason why you would ask that,” says Ross Maly, a movie prop gun seller at the West Bend gun show. “I don’t like it when I ask for someone’s ID and they say, ‘What do you need that for?’ If you want to buy my guns, I want to know who you are.”
At the Waukesha show, Fendry introduces us to a collector named Randy who isn’t required to conduct background checks, but does. “If a person questions their eligibility, they’re not buying from me,” Randy says. “No one wants to operate outside of the law.”
A system of universal background checks, in states that have adopted these, requires that even in sales between individuals, a check must be performed by a federally licensed dealer, for a small fee, before a sale can occur.
As it stands though, private sellers are not even required to ask whether the people they are selling guns to are legally able to possess them, much less take steps to ensure that they are.
At the two gun shows I attend, these private sellers are very much in evidence. They are the people walking around carrying guns, the behavioral equivalent of a For Sale sign.
In Waukesha, four different gun-seekers inquire if there is anything for sale in the bag slung over my shoulder.
“What are you looking for?” I ask.
“Oh, anything,” is the first reply.
I tell him I’m a reporter and would like to ask him a few questions.
“Nope,” he says, darting off.
Lueders asks Fendry whether a person who is not legally able to buy a gun, like a convicted felon, can come to a gun show like this and walk out with a weapon.
“Of course,” Fendry answers, “You could. Absolutely, you could.”
However, Fendry continues, “If there were universal background checks, you could still buy a gun.” These checks might prevent “a certain number of people from getting a gun. But you wouldn’t be able to stop them from getting it some other way.”
That, in a shell casing, is the anti-gun-control mindset: Because there is nothing anyone can do that people who shouldn’t have guns can’t get them, the best policy is to do nothing.
As we arrive at the conference center in West Bend on February 6, my friend and I are greeted by a National Rifle Association recruiter. We’re offered a copy of the NRA magazine, Freedom, in exchange for becoming members. We decline.
This show has all the charm of a VFW luncheon. Dozens of people who seem like they don’t know where else to be linger around a makeshift chow hall serving overpriced coffee and brats. On the floor, gun sellers swoon in the afterglow of yesterday’s visit by Senator Ron Johnson, Republican of Wisconsin.
Johnson—who has even opposed barring people on federal no-fly terror lists from buying guns—left many at the show dazzled and starstruck. “It doesn’t matter where he stands on the other issues because he’s solid when it comes to the Second Amendment,” says Maly, the seller of guns used as movie props.
I see a pile of Tootsie Rolls a few tables over. I ask the seller if I can have one.
“Take one, take two,” he chortles, contorting his face. “That’s how we lure you into our evil world of guns, hee he he he, with Tootsie Rolls, ha hee ha hee . . . .”
I ask about Senator Johnson’s visit.
“He was walking around like any ol’ person,” the seller says, adding that gun shows are a thoroughly safe place to be. “If Gabby Giffords went to a gun show that day, she wouldn’t be all . . . bleh!”
The Spectre M4 is still for sale as the show draws to a close. The asking price is $960. The tall guy with the Obama jokes—including one about a watermelon-eating contest between the President, Al Sharpton, and Martin Luther King Jr.—is still trying to get me to buy it. He shows no interest in knowing whether I’m one of the good guys or a psychopath on my way to the mall. He assumes my female companion is standing between me and the submachine gun, so he puts the pressure on her.
“Valentine’s Day is right around the corner,” he pitches. “It’s a quality firearm. Comes with a coffin-clip.”
The benefits of owning a submachine gun, he suggests, are endless.
“C’mon,” he insists. “It’s like buying a washing machine. Think of it as an investment. He’s happy. You’re protected.”
Nathan Comp is a freelance journalist in Madison, Wisconsin.