- The Washington Times - Tuesday, January 12, 2016

Virginia police arrested a record number of people illegally attempting to buy weapons at gun shows last year and blocked 278 total attempted purchases — numbers that analysts and activists said could undercut President Obama’s demand for even tighter restrictions at the shows.

Overall, there were 91 arrests stemming from gun shows to go along with the 278 sales that were halted, out of a total of 35,535 transactions, according to the Virginia Firearms Transaction Center. In 2014, there were 59 arrests and 169 denials, for reasons such as a felony conviction on the buyer’s record, a history of domestic assault or a restraining order.

State Police Capt. Thomas Turner, commander of the agency’s Criminal Justice Information Services Division, told the Richmond Times-Dispatch that he believes the rise in arrests at gun shows was partly a result of changes in law that make more people banned from buying guns, as well as the knowledge that police have a near-instantaneous ability to check electronic records and sniff out illegal purchases.

“We’ve [also] added some additional people in the Firearms Transactions Center who can review that stuff pretty quickly,” he said.

President Obama has identified gun shows as a soft spot in gun laws, fearing that criminals or would-be terrorists who are unable to buy firearms from licensed federal dealers can buy them instead from private owners at gun shows.

All licensed dealers, including those selling at gun shows, must submit purchases to checks such as the federal National Instant Criminal Background Check System. But private sales are excluded. Mr. Obama has proposed expanding the rules so more sales, including those between private citizens, would require background checks.

Philip Van Cleave, president of the Virginia Citizens Defense League, said Mr. Obama’s push is based on faulty thinking. He said dealers already account for almost all guns sold at shows, and criminals aren’t likely to turn to them.

“Most criminals get their guns either off the street (mostly stolen guns) or using a straw purchase, which background checks cannot stop,” Mr. Van Cleave said.

Indeed, the rate of denied purchases was less than 1 percent last year.

“The percentages are small because bad guys who know they’ll be denied a firearm don’t get their guns from gun shows,” said Erich Pratt, a spokesman for the group Gun Owners of America.

Thomas Baker, an assistant professor in the Department of Criminal Justice at the University of Central Florida, said a big takeaway from the numbers “is how much of a misnomer the ‘gun show loophole’ is.”

“There were over 35,000 background checks conducted at the 75 gun shows in Virginia in 2015,” Mr. Baker said. “For gun rights advocates it shows that the background check system is doing a good job denying those who are legally prohibited from having firearms from getting them and also shows that gun shows aren’t these seedy places full of criminal gun purchases as seems to be implied by some.”

The rate of arrests to denials was 33 percent last year — down from 35 percent in 2014.

State police said sometimes they deny the sale but the buyer doesn’t meet the criteria to be arrested, and other times they can’t locate the buyer after they deny a sale.

Police said all 278 denials involved transactions that were initiated at shows but not necessarily denied during the event. They could have been denied after the show after being marked for further investigation.

The issue of gun purchase background checks is once again at the national forefront in the wake of Mr. Obama’s proposal to require a greater number of dealers “in the business” of selling guns to register with the federal government and conduct mandatory federal checks.

The National Institute of Justice’s data on private sales is decades old, stemming from the 1990s, but those reports estimated that about 40 percent of gun purchases are made through the private market, which include gun show sales, relatives and friends.

The extent to which the president’s actions would apply to someone at a private gun show who might sell five or 10 guns, one time per year, is still in question.

All of the firearms used in recent major mass shootings were subject to background checks, though in some cases, such as last month’s terrorist shooting in San Bernardino, California, the buyers were conducting illegal straw purchases.

But Mr. Obama and other gun control advocates say expanding background checks would keep guns out of the hands of criminals or the mentally ill, saving other lives.

Mr. Baker said the increase in arrests from gun shows in Virginia could boost Mr. Obama’s stance, saying the numbers could be seen as evidence that background checks work and should be applied to every sale.

But Mr. Pratt said the reasons for denials are varied and that some names could end up on the list of those forbidden from buying firearms for questionable reasons.

For example, he said, a 21-year-old daughter could get a domestic violence charge if she threw a set of keys at her mother in front of a police officer, and people disqualified for mental health reasons can include military veterans suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder.

“As liberals like Obama and [Virginia Gov. Terry] McAuliffe dump more and more names into NICS, more and more of those entries will result from ambiguous or even innocent actions,” he said.

The NICS has recorded about 1.27 million federal denials since November 1998 out of more than 225 million checks, for a denial rate of about 0.56 percent.

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