MIAMI — The Brady law and similar gun controls on state books mandate a cooling-off period before anyone can buy a handgun, right?
Then they must require a government background check on all buyers.
But at least they dictate that all handgun sales be registered.
The Brady measure and most superseding state laws have a loophole large enough to sneak a crate of 9-millimeter pistols through--because they apply only to licensed dealers.
Private gun owners can and do sell their weapons legally to anyone. No questions asked, no background check, no registration and no cooling-off period.
The guns in this so-called secondary market are often sold through classified ads. But an increasingly popular outlet is the gun show, where licensed dealers and private owners often compete side by side.
"Easily millions of gun sales can be transacted at gun shows," says Jack Killorin, a spokesman for the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms in Washington.
ATF estimates that Americans own 200 million guns of all kinds, including 67 million handguns. Licensed gun shops sold 7.5 million guns last year.
At a Ft. Lauderdale show this month, a woman who gives her name only as Karen displays a used Colt .38-caliber police special next to a sign: "Private Sale. $195. No forms. No waiting period."
The Colt sale is legal, she says, because the gun is hers.
ATF says that Karen is correct. No law prevents a private citizen from selling handguns to anyone who answers an ad or walks into a gun show. And no clear-cut definition separates private sellers from licensed dealers, such as earnings or number of guns sold. Generally, the ATF says, it requires licenses if gun sellers are running a regular, profit-making business.
"These shows have gotten as common as garage sales, and all this is a problem for us," Killorin says. "It's known that guns have moved out of these shows into criminal hands."
Texas and Florida are particularly worrisome, he says, because they offer frequent gun shows, relatively lax laws and ease of transit for out-of-state buyers.
David Koresh's Branch Davidian cult built up its arsenal with purchases from Texas gun shows, he notes.
"In Texas, traditionally, our agents indicate that a lot of people slide up from Mexico and buy at gun shows, where there are fewer questions asked," Killorin says.
Miami ATF spokesman Bruce Snyder says a 1990 coup attempt in the Caribbean island nation of Trinidad and Tobago was armed through purchases at Florida gun shows. Residents of Northeastern states with tougher gun control laws buy many of the pistols sold legally at Florida gun shows.
But neither ATF nor state and local police agencies can patrol the shows routinely--there are simply too many, Killorin says.
That leaves the shows open not only to legal private sellers, but also to arms dealers who abuse the law by claiming to sell private gun collections.
Robert Trokey, owner of the Firearms Plus shop in Ft. Lauderdale, has a sizable array of guns set up near Karen's table. He says he has no objection to legitimate private sales, but he is skeptical of some vendors.
"I see some private dealers over and over again," Trokey says. "He's got the same number of guns on his table as I do, but he's not obeying the same rules I have to--no sales tax, no paperwork, no three-day waiting period."
Car dealer Stuart Raskin, who has a concealed-weapons permit, walks up to the table to select a gun for his companion, Eileen, who he says was recently robbed by someone using an Uzi.
Raskin generally opposes limits on gun ownership, but he says existing laws should at least be the same for everyone.
"If they're going to try to cover guns, it would be in the best interest of society to cover private dealers too," Raskin said.
At Tamiami Gun Shops in Miami, utility lineman Simon Stoddard picked up his .45-caliber automatic after the legal waiting period. He says he could easily have bought a gun without waiting.
"You can buy them in the bargain traders you pick up at any 7-Eleven," Stoddard said.
Even the National Rifle Assn. concedes that the wrong people may be buying guns through the private sale exception to federal and state laws.
"It disturbs me anytime a criminal or a mentally incompetent individual can get a firearm," NRA lobbyist Joseph Phillips in Washington says. "But how can you reach out and control that, without criminalizing something you essentially have no ability to control?"
Gun control advocates are stepping forward. With the support of former presidential press secretary James S. Brady, who was wounded in the assassination attempt on President Ronald Reagan in 1981, U.S. Rep. Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) and Washington-based Handgun Control Inc. are pushing a bill to require registration of all secondary handgun transfers.
The bill would also effectively ban gun shows by forbidding licensed dealers to sell guns anywhere but at the premises listed on their licenses.
"We think anyone who sells a gun ought to make sure that a person they are selling to is not a felon," Bob Walker of Handgun Control says.
The NRA dismisses the bill as foolish. "In these times of political correctness, you can't rule anything out," Phillips says, "but you can rule out that a criminal is going to register a firearm."