Federally licensed gun dealers are required to screen people before they can sell them a gun. If the person ends up being a felon or clinically insane, it is illegal to make the sale. But something called the gun show loophole gives felons and the mentally ill the chance to become a gun owner. That’s because at gun shows, like Wanenmacher’s Tulsa Arms Show in Tulsa, Oklahoma, hundreds of private dealers set up tables and sell their wares. These private dealers are only required to ask people if they are felons or have a history of mental illness. As Michael Mason, editor of This Land Press, discovered, the transaction can be even less formal than that.
Michael Mason: Today, in America, you can buy a gun without anybody knowing about it and it’s fine.
My name is Michael Mason. I’m the Editor of This Land. And I went to the Wanenmacher Gun Show to buy my first gun. As I approached the expo center, I was imagining a kind of almost a gun carnival atmosphere where, you know, maybe there’d be people juggling the guns out there and, you know, I don’t know what I was thinking. But going in the, you know, the atmosphere there was much more akin to say a flea market on steroids, I mean it was just a huge, huge area that was just completely occupied by hundreds, if not, thousands of tables of guns on display. While I was there I spoke with Joe Wanenmacher, the creator and organizer of the Wanenmacher Gun Show.
Joe Wanenmacher: I am the producer of the world’s largest gun and knife show.
MM: Joe’s a really sort of a grandfatherly-type guy that you wouldn’t expect to be such a gun aficionado.
JW: More than 40,000 people will go through the doors this weekend.
MM: Why such huge crowds to this particular gun show?
JW: Well, it’s been around since 1955. It has a good reputation and…
MM: Is it also that it’s just Oklahoma’s a friendlier place to buy and sell guns?
JW: Yes. And in Oklahoma and Tulsa County, we have no restrictive gun laws.
MM: And he went on to explain to me how if I, you know, bought a gun from a federally licensed seller that it would take about an hour or two.
JW: The Oklahoma dealers are the ones who could sell you a handgun. They will take your information and call in to the FBI and this essentially says, tells them that you are not a criminal or you are not a mental patient.
MM: The last time I held a real gun, I must have been about nine or ten-years old and it was a rifle. And I was way out in the country. And I fired it. And the kick knocked me off my feet and everyone there laughed at me and thought it was really funny. And I’d never had much interest or fascination with guns; I’m pretty much a gun virgin, I guess.
So I went off looking to buy my first gun and thinking that there would be like a bunch of federal hurdles that I’d have to jump through. And then I found this guy.
Private Dealer: That’s the only one I have for $200.
MM: This guy is a private dealer. And private dealers don’t really do background checks. It boils down to the federal government just doesn’t require them to. For private dealers, it’s just a transaction.
What’s the protocol for buying one?
PD: Nothing, you just give me the money.
MM: Really? Okay.
So I gave him $200 and he gave me the gun and I was now a gun owner of a totally untraceable weapon and you know, it took me maybe 30 minutes. It sort of taught me a lesson that I don’t know that it’s effective to really legislate gun sales or not. It’s an illusion in my experience.