Friendly firearms

I am with a colleague at a gun show in Richmond, talking to an ex-cop selling stun guns. I’m looking for evidence of the so-called gun show loophole: the fact that licensed dealers must conduct background checks on purchasers of guns at gun shows, but private individuals can sell their guns at the same shows with viritually no paperwork involved. The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms has long believed that gun shows are the second largest source of illegally trafficked firearms. The crowd in Richmond does not disappoint for stereotypes: hunters, neo-Nazis and Goth kids in black trench coats. There are also African-American youths with cornrows and baggy clothes (two of whom are in wheel chairs), and they’re all rubbing elbows at a table loaded with cheap, legal, 9mm handguns. I ask the ex-cop what he thinks about all the kids in the crowd. “You mean the wrong type of kids,” he says with a smile.

I-95 is an infamous corridor for weapons and drugs. Cheap guns, either stolen from stores and homes, or legally purchased but unregistered, make their way from Richmond and Charlottesville to New York, where they are traded for cocaine. The New York City cops estimate that 90 percent of weapons confiscated in homicides there come from out of state; in 2001 the ATF listed Virginia as the third biggest exporter of guns used in crimes. Recently a gun that had belonged to a major coke dealer in Charlottesville was found in Miami, where someone was arrested with it at an MTV Awards show.

Back in Charlottesville, I visit the jail where a wary inmate claims that 15 years ago (when he was young, like, 16 or 17), lots of people in Charlottesville were driving guns up to New York. There a 9mm could get them an ounce of cocaine. According to local cops, before the one-gun-a-month law was passed you could buy 40 or 50 guns at a time in Virginia and sell them up north for maybe three times the retail price. Leaning back in his chair, the inmate tells me that in Charlottesville guns are still “on the street everywhere.” Despite having been charged in 2002 with possession and transportation of a firearm, he can’t, or won’t, give me more than one measly price for an illegal gun or tell me where the guns come from.

The Albemarle County Police have a display case with some of the guns they’ve confiscated from criminals, including a sawed-off shotgun, an AK-47, an AR-15, and an Uzi that was taken from a 17 year old. With the exception of the shotgun, all of these types of guns were for sale legally back at the gun show in Richmond. Standing in the crowd of gun enthusiasts and potential criminals of all colors and stripes there, I ask the ex-cop, who is excitedly firing a stun gun into the air before me, why he isn’t selling actual firearms. “I won’t sell guns to someone I wouldn’t kill,” he says. I nod knowingly, not at all clear what he means.

Street purchase

$250 for a 9mm handgun in Charlottesville, according to an inmate at the regional jail

Gun show prices for legal guns (which may or may not end up in illegal trade)

$140 for a HiPoint CF 380 pistol

$190 for a 9mm pistol

$230 for a 9mm pistol with an extra capacity magazine

$230 for a .45 pistol with a laser sight

$240 for a 12-gauge pump-action shotgun with a pistol grip and no stock
$330 for an AK-47 (Avtomat Kalashnikova 1947. One of the first assault rifles, and still the most popular worldwide, the AK-47 is famous for its durability, simplicity and inaccuracy.)

$330 for a MAC-11 submachine gun (Military Armament Corporation model 11. A smaller version of the MAC-10. Both guns are submachine guns whose small size and rapid rate of fire make them very difficult to control.)

$330 for a Taurus Millennium 380 pistol

$369 for a .38 special

$390 for a Taurus 9mm pistol

$589 for a .357 Magnum

$600 for a .223 caliber AR-15 (a semi-automatic rifle originally made by ArmaLight corporation and then sold to Colt. The American military adopted the AR-15 as the M16 in the early ’60s.)

$700-$1,500 for custom-made semi-automatic rifles

$11-$12 for various guides detailing how to convert semi-automatic weapons to full-auto, including the AR-15 and the MAC-11

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