Last month, California became the first state to prohibit the sale of firearms and ammunition on state property, a move that will put an end to gun shows on county fairgrounds, where they are often held. Gun safety activists have long argued that the shows perpetuate gun violence and lead to illegal firearm sales.
While California has the strictest gun laws in the country, by allowing gun shows on its property, the state still was in the business of gun distribution, said state Sen. Dave Min, who sponsored the bill that was supported only by fellow Democratic lawmakers. The measure was part of a broad gun safety package that Democratic Gov. Gavin Newsom signed in July.
“The state of California should not profit on what is essentially blood money,” Min told Stateline.
Last year, California state lawmakers banned firearm sales on public property in Orange County. Officials in Los Angeles, San Diego and San Mateo counties had previously banned the sale of firearms and ammunition at gun shows at public fairgrounds and other county-run event centers within their respective communities.
For decades, gun violence researchers have linked gun shows with firearms used in crimes, as unofficial transactions between attendees often skirted national laws that require background checks on purchases from federally licensed vendors. Recently, the proliferation of untraceable parts for “ghost guns” sold at gun shows has added another layer of concern.
While a handful of states regulate gun shows, often by requiring background checks on all purchases or setting a minimum age for event entry, California is the first to put an end to shows on state property. Gun safety advocates in the Golden State hope they are laying the groundwork for other states to follow, but gun rights advocates are fiercely opposed to curbs on gun shows.
California’s measure is “a slap in the face of millions of Californians,” said Michael Schwartz, executive director of San Diego County Gun Owners PAC. Gun owners and gun shows, he said, are being villainized.
“Tying gun shows to mass shootings is ludicrous,” he said. “It’s offensive. We’re not doing anything wrong. We’re not doing anything immoral. We’re good, upstanding taxpayers like anyone else.”
The new law is not just “disappointing” for gun owners, said Rob Templeton, vice president of Crossroads of the West, a Utah-based company that will run 50 gun shows this year throughout Arizona, California, Colorado, Nevada and Utah. It also ignores the strict laws that already governed gun shows in California, he said.
All firearm transactions at California gun shows must go through a federally licensed dealer, meaning all purchases are subject to a background check and 10-day waiting period. California also bans any private transactions in parking lots outside gun shows. Gun show promoters also are subject to a background check by the state’s Department of Justice.
A handful of other states regulate gun shows to a lesser extent. Colorado, Connecticut, New York, Oregon and Virginia also require background checks on all firearm purchases at gun shows, while Maryland requires a special dealer license to sell handguns and assault weapons at gun shows.
While the California ban goes into effect next year, counties will still honor existing contracts for future gun shows. For more than three decades, these events have given California gun enthusiasts a space to gather with like-minded people to discuss their passion for the firearm tradition, Templeton said.
“I really wish that people who didn’t know about guns or who are fearful about firearms, I wish they would just go to a gun show and see what it’s like,” he said in an interview shortly after finishing a gun show at the fairgrounds Kern County, California. Gun shows likely will continue in Kern County in the coming years because of existing contracts, he said.
Although most transactions at gun shows are legitimate, people cannot ignore that gun shows have been the source of firearms trafficking throughout the country, said Dr. Garen Wintemute, an emergency physician and director of the Violence Prevention Research Program at the University of California, Davis, a leading source of research on gun shows.
It is illegal to knowingly sell a gun to a person prohibited from owning one, such as a convicted domestic abuser or someone with a felony conviction. But that doesn’t stop every transaction: Private firearm sales become a “don’t ask, don’t tell” situation at gun shows, he said.
“What goes on at gun shows is only a small part of what contributes to widespread availability of firearms in the United States,” he said. “Doing something about gun shows is not the cure to firearm violence. It may be part of the cure.”
As with other pieces of gun safety legislation, Wintemute expects other states will soon follow California’s lead. While Min has spoken with lawmakers in other states about his bill, he has not yet heard of any lawmaker who plans on introducing similar legislation in the next session.
For nearly a decade, gun safety activists in California had tried to ban gun shows on public property, protesting outside gun shows, gathering thousands of signatures for petitions and lobbying state and local officials. They saw their first big win in 2018 when the fair board in Del Mar, a beach town north of San Diego, bowed to public pressure to suspend gun shows.
Gun-show organizer Crossroads of the West sued the fairgrounds and won a $500,000 settlement in 2020 for breach of contract. Del Mar Fairgrounds had hosted gun shows for three decades. But the long history has not dissuaded activists.
“We don’t need that culture of violence that’s being perpetuated at gun shows,” said Rose Ann Sharp, founder of NeverAgainCA, one of the gun safety groups that has led these efforts in California. “That’s not what our communities want their state-owned fairgrounds to be used for.”
In more gun-friendly states, gun safety activists have sought to ban gun shows at the local level with limited success. In the past three years, only Roanoke, Virginia, and Knoxville, Tennessee, have banned gun shows on city property, according to Stateline research.
Knoxville Councilwoman Gwen McKenzie said gun shows had no place in her East Knoxville community, which has struggled with gun violence. In 2019, the city council voted 8-1 to ban gun shows on city-owned property. While McKenzie braced for legal challenges to the resolution, none came.
“We should all be vigilant to see where guns are being sold in cities across the country,” she said. “It’s incumbent on us to say, ‘We don’t need it here; we don’t want it here.’”
Similar efforts have struggled elsewhere. In southern Arizona, gun safety activist Molly McKasson has been trying to ban gun shows in Pima County since the 2018 school shooting in Parkland, Florida.
Short of that, she wants all gun sales to go through a background check.
“I went to a gun show and was just blown away by folding tables full of AR-15s just laying out,” said McKasson, a former Tucson city council member who founded the gun safety group Citizens for a Safer Pima County. “It was just perfectly normal, like it was a swap meet. That feeling just registered as a huge amount of danger.”
Standing in the way, however, is an Arizona law that does not allow local jurisdictions to implement gun statutes that are stricter than state regulations. Some local officials want to change that.
Earlier this month, three out of five Pima County supervisors voted to pass a measure that calls on the state legislature to repeal the state’s law that preempts local gun ordinances. It also calls on the Pima County Attorney’s office to compile options for a legal challenge to the state law by mid-November.
Gun violence is a public health crisis, and the county should have the right to address it, said Supervisor Rex Scott, who proposed the measure.
He added, “Really what we’re calling for more than anything is both local control and common sense.”
Stateline, an initiative of The Pew Charitable Trusts, provides daily reporting and analysis on trends in state policy. Stateline content is published daily at pewtrusts.org/stateline.