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President Joe Biden gestures as he speaks about gun violence prevention in the Rose Garden at the White House, Thursday, April 8, 2021, in Washington. (AP) President Joe Biden gestures as he speaks about gun violence prevention in the Rose Garden at the White House, Thursday, April 8, 2021, in Washington. (AP)

President Joe Biden gestures as he speaks about gun violence prevention in the Rose Garden at the White House, Thursday, April 8, 2021, in Washington. (AP)

Louis Jacobson
By Louis Jacobson April 8, 2021
Amy Sherman
By Amy Sherman April 8, 2021

In gun policy address, Joe Biden exaggerates about background checks at gun shows

If Your Time is short

  • If you go to a gun show and buy a firearm from a federally licensed seller, you will have to pass a background check, just as if you went to a bricks-and-mortar gun store. You would only escape a background check at a gun show if you bought from a seller who isn’t federally licensed.

  • While the data is incomplete, federally licensed sellers have been found to make up a substantial share, and perhaps a majority, of gun show vendors.

In a Rose Garden event, President Joe Biden announced several actions his administration will take to address what he called an "epidemic" of gun violence.

Biden repeated his call for Congress to pass legislation to expand background checks. The House voted largely along party lines to pass a pair of background check bills this year, but they haven’t moved forward in the Senate.

"These bills, one, require background checks for anyone purchasing a gun at a gun show or an online sale," Biden said at the April 8 event. "Most people don't know it, you walk into a store and you buy a gun, you have a background check. But you go to a gun show, you can buy whatever you want, and no background check."

When it comes to background checks for gun purchases, what matters is who sells the guns, not where the guns are sold — and when a federally licensed seller is a vendor at a gun show, they have to run a background check just as they would if they were back at a bricks-and-mortar gun store.

The White House told PolitiFact that Biden wasn’t suggesting that every gun transaction at a gun show would take place without a background check. Instead, he meant that sales without background checks could occur in some cases. 

However, that's not what he said.

What the laws say about sales at gun shows

Advocates for stricter gun control measures often talk about the "gun show loophole," though some observers say the term is a misnomer. The phrase itself doesn’t explain who is and isn’t required to run background checks at gun shows. 

Federal law requires that people in the business of dealing in firearms be licensed by the federal government.

Specifically, the law says that a license is required if "a person who devotes time, attention, and labor to dealing in firearms as a regular course of trade or business with the principal objective of livelihood and profit through the repetitive purchase and resale of firearms."

The law specifically rules out a required license if a person "makes occasional sales, exchanges, or purchases of firearms for the enhancement of a personal collection or for a hobby, or who sells all or part of his personal collection of firearms."

This can sometimes be a fuzzy distinction, but it means many sellers of guns do need to have a license.

"Every federally licensed retailer, whether they are selling a gun at a brick and mortar store, a  gun show or the sale starts online," must complete a signed background check form from the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms and get approval from the FBI’s National Instant Criminal Background Check system, said Mark Oliva, a spokesperson for the National Shooting Sports Foundation.

Gun shows can include either licensed dealers or private sellers. So at a gun show, the licensed sellers need to run a background check on buyers, and the non-licensed sellers don’t.

So Biden’s blanket statement that if you go to a gun show, you can avoid a background check, is wrong. It depends on who you buy from.

It’s also worth noting something that Biden’s statement ignores: A number of states have implemented additional background check requirements that cover at least some private sales. The states include some of the nation’s most populous, including California, New York and Illinois. 

These states’ specific laws vary, but at least in the states with the strictest additional requirements, you will have to pass a background check for any gun you buy at a gun show, contrary to what Biden said.

How common are licensed sellers at gun shows?

How common is it for licensed sellers to set up shop at gun shows? The available data is old and of uncertain accuracy, but what data we have shows that gun show vendors are often licensed sellers.

Professors at Northeastern and Harvard universities conducted a gun survey in 2015 and found that 22% of gun owners who reported obtaining their most recent firearm within the previous two years reported doing so without a background check. For firearms purchased privately, including sales between individuals in person, online or at gun shows, 50% were obtained without a background check.

Jay Corzine, a sociologist at the University of Central Florida who specializes in gun research, said that observations that he and his wife, fellow University of Central Florida sociologist Lin Huff-Corzine, have made in Florida in recent years suggest that licensed dealers have a "disproportionate amount of the stock" for sale at shows, accounting for roughly three-fourths of sales.

Our ruling

Biden said, "You go to a gun show, you can buy whatever you want, and no background check." 

This is overstated. If you go to a gun show and buy a firearm from a federally licensed seller, you will have to pass a background check, just as if you went to a bricks-and-mortar gun store. You would only escape a background check at a gun show if you bought from a seller who isn’t federally licensed.

While the data is incomplete, federally licensed sellers have been found to make up a substantial share, and perhaps a majority, of gun show vendors.

We rate Biden’s statement Mostly False.

RELATED: Support for universal background checks on gun buyers is near 90%

RELATED: Fact-checking Joy Behar on mass shootings and the assault weapons ban

RELATED: House passes gun background check bills supported by Biden

Our Sources

White House, President Biden’s remarks on gun violence, April 8, 2021

White House, FACT SHEET: Biden-Harris Administration Announces Initial Actions to Address the Gun Violence Public Health Epidemic, April 8, 2021

Rev.com, Transcript of President Joe Biden, April 8, 2021

Giffords, Gun show background checks, Accessed April 8, 2021

Everytown, Unchecked: An Investigation of the Online Firearm Marketplace, Feb. 1, 2021

Everytown, Background Checks on All Gun Sales, Accessed April 8, 2021

Matthew Miller, Lisa Hepburn & Deborah Azrael, Firearm Acquisition Without Background Checks, Annals of Internal Medicine, 2017

Bureau of Justice Statistics, Source And Use Of Firearms Involved In Crimes: Survey Of Prison Inmates, 2016

Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, "Most Frequently Asked Firearms Questions and Answers," accessed April 8, 2021

PolitiFact, PolitiFact Sheet: 3 things to know about the 'gun show loophole' Jan. 7, 2016

PolitiFact, Bernie Sanders repeats false claim about gun sales without background checks, Feb. 20, 2018

PolitiFact Florida, How often are guns sold without background checks? March 16, 2017

PolitiFact Virginia, McAuliffe says 40 percent of U.S. gun sales escape background checks, Nov. 2, 2015

White House, Statement to PolitiFact, April 8, 2021

Interview with Mark Oliva, spokesperson for the National Shooting Sports Foundation, April 8, 2021

Interview with Jay Corzine, sociologist at the University of Central Florida, April 8, 2021

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More by Louis Jacobson

In gun policy address, Joe Biden exaggerates about background checks at gun shows

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