The Best Place to Buy Your Next Gun Might Not be Where You Expect

Matt Burke

Just about any firearm commercially available today can be found at a gun show.


Whether you’re in Tallahassee, Fort Walton Beach or Pensacola, a gun show is the epitome of American capitalism in action. You can buy, sell, trade, socialize, pick up on industry gossip and news, or just hang out with good friends on a lazy weekend. All the while you are helping contribute to a national economy that needs a boost after shrinking
3 percent during the first quarter of 2014.

In general, gun shows are microcosms of an important economic power in America. According to the National Shooting Sports Foundation, firearms manufacturing, distribution and related industries account for a direct employment of 111,895 people and an additional 133,850 with suppliers and ancillary businesses. The average wage and benefits paid is $47,709. And as a whole, the industry accounted for $37.7 billion in economic activity in the United States in 2013. The biggest firearms-related tradeshow in the nation is the annual SHOT Show in Las Vegas. The 2014 show attracted a record-setting 67,000 attendees, according to the NSSF. Taken as a business barometer, this means that more and more people are getting involved in shooting-related activities.

Entering A Local Show

If you’ve never been to a gun show, here’s generally how they work: Once you’ve paid your admission fee and walk in the door, a sheriff’s deputy or staff member will ask if you have any weapons or ammunition.

“They’re going to make sure that the weapon is clear and it’s tied, so the action cannot be operated. (Guns) can’t be loaded. If you don’t (have weapons or ammo), he says fine, and he directs you to the next person who takes your money or ticket and they stamp your hand so that you can exit and enter as many times as you like while you’re there,” said Mark Foor, a state tax specialist who has had experience on both sides of the table — as a vendor and as an official making sure all vendors (including private dealers) are registered to collect sales tax at the public venue per Florida law (enforcement of which is nearly unenforceable, he said, due to a lack of manpower).

Once inside, it’s simply a matter of scoping out the room and finding a place to start browsing. Once you start talking to vendors, you realize that a gun show may be in your backyard, but the registered vendors can come from just about anywhere. At a recent gun show in Tallahassee there were not only local vendors, but some from Central Florida and Southern Georgia as well. 

Usually, there are rows and rows of tables and bottlenecks of people trying to do the same thing you are. You can shop at gun shows for handguns, rifles and shotguns to suit a variety of purposes, but you’ll also find shooting and cleaning supplies, ammunition and reloading components, non-lethal self-defense weapons, knives, surplus military guns, range bags, concealed carry holsters and much more. There are charity raffles and food vendors. Places to sit, relax and take it all in. Or, if you want to work toward getting your Florida concealed weapon permit, there are usually classes that are geared to help. And if you have questions about anything at all, just ask. You’ll probably walk away with tons of information from buyers and sellers alike. No matter what they sell, vendors themselves are friendly and engaging, love to talk “shop,” and conversations strike up pretty easily.

“The shows are very educational, very informative and you’re going to get to see just about anything on earth that’s commercially available right now,” said World War II aficionado Ed Buist of Tallahassee, who spent eight years setting up as a private vendor before selling off much of his collection. “Plus, you’ll get to see a lot of older stuff going all the way back to muzzle-loading guns and up to more modern stuff. And it’s well worth the trip. It’s a cheap day out, actually.”

Foor said that most people who go to gun shows have some idea of what they’re looking for. On the other hand, some people are just there to window shop and are just looking to see what’s new. Others want to “try on” a gun they might have seen in a magazine. 

“It looks great in the picture, but you know, you get there it might not fit your hands and might not be a practical weapon for whatever you are using it for. And, as a general rule, a good many people will bring something they already own that they’re not real attached to, to use as trading material,” he said.

In another time, wheeling and dealing would be considered part of the fun. Nowadays, though, in a still-recovering economy, attendees take a very serious look at what they can do to come out ahead. But you have to know something about the economics of gun trading and selling. For example, you’re liable to get the most money from selling a used gun than a new one, according to J.D. Johnson, a retired law enforcement officer and co-owner/COO of Talon Training Group.

Johnson said that there is very little markup or profit margin on new guns. When he had a federal firearms license back in the early 1990s he would buy new guns, go to a gun show and trade a new gun for an older gun that has collector value. Then, he would look for an appreciative buyer for that valuable older gun.

“I know guys who strictly collect Winchesters and if I could get my hands on a pre-64 Winchester rifle or shotgun, I knew that I could sell that to a collector if it was in good shape and hadn’t been refinished (which would ruin its collector value),” Johnson said. “So I would take guns in on trade that were to most people old and antiquated and they wanted a new gun to hunt with or a new gun to go to the range with. The used gun market is truly where the money is made a lot of times because of the very small margins on new guns. If I can trade you a new gun that I have $200 or $300 in and I know that gun you’re trading me is worth $500 and I give you $300 for it, then I may eventually make $200 on that purchase. Compared to a new gun, which you’re not making but $50 or $60 on, maybe.”

There are usually two different types of dealers/vendors at gun shows in Florida. There are the Federal Firearms License dealers who normally own a gun shop and make a living selling guns and accessories. And there are the non-licensed, private collectors who are interested in selling or trading part of their collection.

Buying a firearm at a gun show from a federally licensed dealer entails the same paperwork, identification and background checks, fees and waiting periods (if applicable) one would expect at the dealer’s gun store. Sale of a firearm by a federally licensed dealer must be documented by federal form 4473, which identifies the purchaser and inventories other personal information and records the make, model and serial number of the firearm.

Persons must be 18 years old and a legal U.S. resident to buy a long gun in the state of Florida. Long gun purchases are generally exempt from waiting periods. To buy a handgun in Florida, you must be 21 years old and a Florida resident. There is a three-day waiting period for handgun purchases, unless you have a state of Florida concealed weapons permit.

When it comes to private collectors, Florida law generally allows private firearm transactions between residents who are legally permitted to own guns. The transaction is not required to go through a federal firearms licensee. This means that private vendors have to rely more on their gut instinct when considering carrying out a sale, especially with someone they don’t know. Even though no paperwork or questions are specifically required, collector and former vendor Ed Buist said the conscientious private vendor should ask certain questions to ascertain, for example, that the potential buyer is a Florida resident and old enough to buy the firearm in question.

“And if you don’t ask, you could find yourself in a bad situation,” Buist said. “I always ask two questions: Are you a Florida resident? And when they say yes, I just take a quick look at their driver’s license, and all I’m doing is I’m looking at that and comparing the picture. I’m not looking at your birthday, unless you look a little too young to me to be buying a gun, and I hand it back. The other question is have you any felonies against you or are you a convicted felon? Now, a real convicted felon is going to say no, of course not. But I ask the question. My obligation ended there. If you want to lie to me, then OK. You lied to me, but I asked the question. So that’s all you really need to do.”

But that’s going above the call of duty, according to fellow gun enthusiast Mark Foor, who said private vendors are not legally obligated to take those steps.

“That’s the only downside of what I like to call an arms-length trade,” Foor said. 

The Florida Constitution does provide a “local option” avenue for background checks to apply to private sales at public venues. Article VIII Sec. 5(b), says “Each county shall have the authority to require a criminal history records check and a 3- to 5-day waiting period, excluding weekends and legal holidays, in connection with the sale of any firearm occurring within such county. For purposes of this subsection, the term ‘sale’ means the transfer of money or other valuable consideration for any firearm when any part of the transaction is conducted on property to which the public has the right of access.” To date, Leon County has not enacted such an ordinance.

Trading up for something newer and better is a big, big part of gun shows. You might have an old pistol from World War II that you’d like to trade, with a little extra cash, for a more modern gun. And if you don’t like that newer gun, you can come back to the next show and trade for something else.

“It’s like trading up in cars,” Foor said. “You know, you have a Pinto and you drive to the local lot and next thing you know, you’ve got a Dodge Dart. You’re stepping up in the world. And the same is true with guns. You might start out with some cheap pocket semiautomatic, but you wheel and deal a little bit, put in a little extra money and you might actually come out with something fairly decent, and later on you trade up or sell and use the money for something else. I’ve done that myself many times.”

Whether you trade or buy outright, the price is always negotiable, and haggling is a fun but necessary art these days.

“Anybody who’s got a little bit of experience at a show — and I don’t care if it’s a gun show, a boat show, whatever kind of show — everybody knows there’s the price that’s on it, but that’s not necessarily what you have to pay,” Buist said. “What you’ll hear a lot of is somebody will attempt to point out every slight flaw it may have in order to get the price down. For the first-timer, it may seem a little strange. But you know, it’s just like coin collectors or stamp collectors. The slightest flaw, they’re going to point it out. Trying to get that price adjusted. I enjoy that. There is a tremendous amount of fun to be had there.”

Meanwhile, the licensed dealer has to know what guns are popular at the time in order to make the most of a gun show, Johnson said. If there’s a hot new product on the market that’s generating a lot of buzz, you’ll probably want to add it your inventory quickly and put it out on the table. Such was the case with the Glock 42, a new .380-caliber pocket pistol introduced at the SHOT show back in January. The initial MSRP for the Glock 42 was listed at $480 when introduced at the beginning of 2014. But some prices have been as low as $355. 

“The demand for that particular weapon was out of sight. Everybody wanted one, everybody had to have one, if you don’t have one you’re not cool. The demand for it was just phenomenal and still is,” Johnson said. “So as a dealer, to truly be successful at the shows, you’re going to have to know what people are looking for.”

Some dealers, though, specialize in particular guns as a way to appeal to specialized buyers. For example, antique and military guns have a huge following, Johnson said. A lot of dealers who have worked gun shows for 20 years have tended to do well by following that niche market. 

“You know that the guy from ABC gun shop is going to have a nice selection of M1 Garands, and if you’re looking for an M1 Garand you’re going to go to a gun show and look for that guy. ’Cause you know he’s got a nice collection of WWII-era guns,” he said.

The venerable semiautomatic Garand (officially designated the United States Rifle, Caliber .30, M1) can be quite an investment and is very popular with shooters and collectors alike. More than six million were made between 1936 and 1957. Most of the ones you find today are arsenal rebuilds with replacement parts. “Original” WWII-vintage Garands with matching parts and numbers are scarce. As with any collectible gun, prices can vary depending on several factors — scarcity being perhaps the biggest. In the case of the M1 (and other obsolete guns), demand may be outpacing supply. New import restrictions are preventing many surplus World War II Lend-Lease firearms from returning to America. That means scarcity for all involved, and prices can only go up. Buist said that at gun shows the M1 can fetch between $900–$1,200. 

By contrast, another World War II longarm — the rugged, bolt-action Mosin-Nagant rifle — costs far less, simply because so many of them were made. Production of this Russian rifle began in 1891 and ran for some 70 years or more. Millions were made in various configurations and models. Perhaps the most plentiful version, the one you might see most at a gun show, is the 91/30. More than 17 million of these were produced between 1930 and 1944. In recent years a collector/shooter could pick up a standard (non-sniper) 91/30 for under $70 or $80, but prices today are creeping into the $100 range or more. Hand-select grades can be had for just under $200 in some cases. Like the Garand, most Mosin-Nagants available today have seen some sort of rehab and refinish, and they have their own devoted following of collectors and shooters.


Matt Burke

After a gun show, chances are gun buyers will become regular customers at local gun stores.


Striking a Deal

Saturdays are usually the busiest days at any gun show, but Sundays can be a little bit more laid back because most shows close early and the vendors have to pack up and go home. Additionally, Sunday may be the best time to find a bargain, Foor said, because vendors don’t want to tote something home, or they may need some gas money.

“You can get some good deals on a Sunday,” he said. “The best deal, I’ve always been told, is one where both people walk away happy. Basically what most people do is they try to get as close to an even trade as they can get. Especially today … people don’t have a lot of excess income to invest. So they’re trying to get as much bang for their buck as they can.”

In other words, it pays to shop around. Buist said that just like shopping for a car, home appliance or whatever, you should take the time to talk with several vendors.

“Above all, I think you need to know what it is you’re looking for before you go in that door,” he said. But don’t overlook the private vendors. They might have just the thing you’re looking for. More often than not it might be slightly used, so the price might just beat the price of the same item on a licensed dealer’s table. You can also find used guns with the regular licensed dealers. It all depends on what you’re looking for.

Meanwhile, for the dealer, a gun show offers a chance to do a little self-promotion to attract some future business to the brick-and-mortar shop. Tristan Shelfer, owner of Red Hills Arms in Tallahassee, said his shop’s presence at a recent show in Tallahassee was more about exposure for his new business than sales.

“It’s a chance to hand out business cards. We’ve only been in business for six months, and it was a way to let people know we’re here,” he said. “We’re hoping it will cause a lot more walk-in clientele later on. As far as sales, net proceeds covered the labor and cost of that particular table.”


‘Salesman of the Year’

It’s a truism among gun enthusiasts. If the political climate is bad, and people feel that their Second Amendment rights are being threatened, it’s a good time to be a gun shop owner. And if you go to a gun shop these days you just might see a picture of President Barack Obama with a caption that reads, “Salesman of the Year.”

Matt Burke

The venerable M1 Garand rifle of World War II fame is a sought-after piece of firearms history. Savvy buyers can find them at gun shows, along with other “obsolete” surplus weapons.

“The Obama Administration has been fantastic for gun sales, for shooting, for firearms training, for ammunition sales,” Johnson said. “I mean the numbers have gone through the roof. Because he is openly anti-gun. I don’t think it’s a mystery or a secret to anybody.”

But it’s not just the Obama Administration. Politics has played a role in gun sales for many years. During the Clinton years and the “assault weapons” ban, pre-ban AR-15 rifles sold for three times what post-ban AR-15s were going for. And there was very little difference between the two, Johnson said. 

“One had a bayonet lug and a flash suppressor and the other didn’t. They functioned the same way, they fired the same number of rounds,” he said. The more restrictive the political climate, the more people want it, Johnson said. Today, guns and ammunition have flown off shelves in record-breaking fashion, and shortages have been common. Some buyers are long-time shooting enthusiasts while others may be brand-new to the culture.

“Since the Obama Administration is probably one of the biggest anti-gun administrations this country has ever seen, there are people who would have never considered owning a firearm that have gone out, sought out training, bought ammunition, bought firearms and gotten into the gun culture because the government was threatening to take it away or they felt like the government was threatening to take it away,” he said. “So it’s been a huge upward climb, and every time they get on TV or the media starts talking about gun restrictions, the sales go through the roof. The crime rate also has a lot to do with it. I think fear is a big component of that (surge); it drives people in a way that nothing else does. Fear of either losing their right to own a gun or fear of somebody kicking their door in to do harm to them are two big factors that really push people to act and purchase guns.”

However, the “boom” hasn’t necessarily been a good thing for some gun shops, Johnson said. It’s his observation that smaller ones lacking a lot of buying power might find themselves out of inventory and unable to put certain items back in stock. That can be a very bad thing for business and you can lose customers quickly.

“If they are not a dealer that can get ahold of a lot of inventory and all of a sudden you have this huge demand, well, the distributors are going to sell to their bigger customers so the little guys that were getting into the gun business were having a heck of a time getting inventory,” he said. “And the boom ended up hurting some of them, because they could not get inventory to sell. They had people beating their door down wanting to buy a gun and they couldn’t get them, and if you go to a store two or three times to buy something and they don’t have it, what are you going to do? You’re going to go to another store.”


A Changing Business

Buist, a 68-year-old history buff, is old enough to remember a time when the only firearm vendors at gun shows were the individual collectors who were selling World War II memorabilia, guns and other military items. This goes back to the ’50s and ’60s.

“Gun shows were not like they are today. Back then, licensed dealers were not permitted to sell any of their weapons outside of their shop. The gun shows were far more interesting to me anyway because what you would find there were private individuals either selling off part of their collections or you had veterans coming in wanting to sell war trophies and such, and it was like a living history lesson — and I love history,” he said. “So this is why I started going to the shows … and I still do to this day. Now, the gun shows are in some respects a little bit less interesting, because more and more what’s happening is the licensed dealers are there and they usually take up several tables. Little by little it seems like the private collector or hobbyist is sort of being pushed out of some of the shows.”

Johnson has also noticed that in today’s gun shows, the ratio of licensed dealers to private collectors tends to skew more toward the FFL holder. 

“You go to the next gun show here in Tallahassee and you might see three or four private individuals with a table, and a lot of them are guys that are trying to liquidate their collection,” he said. “A lot of them have had collections for years and decided that they’ve got too many guns in the safe and would rather have the cash for medical bills.”

They may also want the cash to give to their grandkids, Johnson said, since cash is easier to handle and pass along. Some decide they’d rather start a college fund for their grandchildren instead of giving them guns they might not appreciate.

That hasn’t been the only change gun shows have gone through in recent years. Computers and smartphones have done much to streamline transactions and increase convenience for buyer and seller alike.

“You know, back then … only the big shots had the ability to run a credit card at the show, so you mostly dealt with cash and check,” Johnson said. “Now everybody’s got the cube they plug into their smartphone so they can take your credit card at the scene, and some of the big gun shops now have computerized 4473 ATF forms. It has become a lot easier with the use of computers for dealers to keep up with and maintain their log book.”  

Upcoming gun shows in Northwest Florida include:
Panama City at the Bay County Fairgrounds, Oct. 25–26; Pensacola at the Interstate Fairgrounds, Nov. 15–16; Fort Walton Beach at the NW Florida Fairgrounds, Dec. 6–7; and Tallahassee at the North Florida Fairgrounds, Dec. 20–21.

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