A potential buyer tries out a gun which is displayed on an exhibitor's table during the Nation's Gun Show on November 18, 2016, at Dulles Expo Center in Chantilly. (Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images)

Say that I’ve got a gun for sale.

I have a few options. I can sell it to a licensed gun dealer or place it on consignment with one, in which case that dealer would be required to perform a background check on anyone who wants to buy it. I could take it to a gun show, like the one in Richmond this past weekend, and sell it to one of the vendors or patrons there.

Just like with a car, though, my best bet for the most cash is to cut out a middle man and make a private sale to another person. Unlike a car, however, there’s no title to transfer, no need to get the equivalent of license plates, an inspection sticker or demonstrate proof of insurance before the new owner takes it for a spin.

In fact, if this an unfamiliar world for you, you might be wondering what responsibilities the law imposes on me, the seller of a deadly weapon, to ensure the person I give the gun to in exchange for cash is eligible to own one.

Hardly any is the short answer.

Just to be sure I was right, here are the questions I posed to Corinne Geller, a spokeswoman for the Virginia State Police:

  • Is it correct that private sellers are under no affirmative obligation to ensure that the buyer of a firearm is lawfully allowed to purchase the gun? (In other words, while it’s illegal to knowingly sell a gun to someone who is barred from owning one, there is no requirement for the seller to verify that’s the case)
  • Under the same scenario (a private sale) is there any affirmative obligation of the seller to create a bill of sale or otherwise track the purchase? (I see on the VSP site that it’s recommended but does not appear to be required)
  • There is no requirement to report firearms lost or stolen in Virginia, right?

Here’s Geller’s response: “Hi, Robert: Correct, correct and correct.”

This means that I can meet you in a parking lot and hand you a gun as long as you have the agreed-upon money. I am not required to find out whether you have any number of criminal convictions that would bar you from owning a gun. I am not even required to get your name, it seems.

Some responsible gun owners will tell you they would never do something like this, but that doesn’t change the fact that in Virginia we are essentially on the honor system for private sales. Even after Gov. Terry McAuliffe and lawmakers patted themselves on the back for a 2016 compromise that put the State Police at every gun show in Virginia to perform voluntary background checks, hardly any sellers have availed themselves of the option.

The legislature could and should require that I meet that buyer at a licensed Virginia firearms dealer, which could perform a background check for private sales for a fee. (Some gun shops I called said they will do this now, others said they don’t).

Politicians who remain resistant to universal background checks only allow gaping holes to remain in a system that clearly allows people who shouldn’t be able to acquire guns to do so easily. It costs lives, as well as defying common sense and the will of the majority of Americans, including gun owners like me. It’s the epitome of the least we can do to stem gun violence.

Because there is no tracking of private sales, it’s hard to know how many happen. But a look at a firearms classified website like this one can give you a sense of how much hardware is on offer. Earlier this year, a former Norfolk sailor was sentenced to 2 1/2 years in prison for re-selling guns he bought with a military discount, including to “a juvenile, a drug-addicted armed robber, a drug dealer trafficking in stolen firearms and many others,” The Virginian-Pilot reported. But who he sold them to wasn’t necessarily his problem from a legal standpoint.

The primary charge against him, and the one he pleaded guilty to, was that he was dealing firearms without a license. The defendant “purchased at least 60 firearms, posted 146 times on firearms-marketplace website www.VAguntrader.com, advertised at least 50 firearms on firearms-marketplace website www.armslist.com and resold at least 23 firearms at a profit,” the court documents state.

During the State Crime Commission meetings this month, some alarming data from the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms was presented:

  • 10,021 firearms recovered by police as part of a criminal investigation were traced to a legal purchase in Virginia, the seventh highest number for any state.
  • Those guns go from purchase to crime scene quicker than nearly any other state, according to 2017 data from ATF. We have the third quickest turnaround of any state, behind only Missouri and Wisconsin, with 2,079 guns purchased here traced back to crimes in the first year after their purchase.

That’s indicative of trafficking and straw purchase activity, an ATF representative told the commission, which should hardly have come as shock, since gun traffickers have boasted about the ease with which they acquire firearms in Virginia.

“The illegal firearms sold during this investigation amount to a sizable arsenal,” said New York City Police Commissioner James P. O’Neill after officers busted a massive Virginia-based gun-running ring in 2017. “When 24 individuals can readily engage in interstate trafficking of 217 handguns, rifles and assault-type weapons, this nation has a serious gun-control problem.”

The failure to bring back the one-gun-a-month law also is a boon to gun runners.

“I can go get 20 guns from the store tomorrow. I can do that Monday through Friday,” one alleged Richmond-area trafficker was caught saying on a wiretap. “They might start looking at me, but in Virginia, our laws are so little, I can give guns away.”

A New York undercover officer bought 217 guns and assault rifles from a trafficking ring that operated out of Virginia and was dismantled in 2017. (NBC12)

How do so many legally purchased guns wind up in the hands of criminals? While Virginia and the federal government makes straw purchasing a crime, they don’t do much as they could to inhibit it.

There is a box you’re required to check stipulating that you’re not buying a gun for someone else: “Are you the actual transferee/buyer of the firearm(s) listed on this form? Warning: You are not the actual transferee/buyer if you are acquiring the firearm(s) on behalf of another person,” the form says.

But because there is no requirement to report guns lost or stolen or track private sales, it’s clearly tough for police to bust straw purchasers.

“Without reporting laws, straw purchasers can simply claim that a gun they bought and gave to a prohibited person was lost or taken in an unreported theft,” the Giffords Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence notes.

Another jaw-dropping stat from the commission’s meetings: Police in Virginia made just nine arrests for straw purchases between 2012 and 2018, despite the thousands of guns that go from legal sale here to a crime.

The old canard among the pro-gun crowd is that only law-abiding people follow gun laws (which ignores the fact that weak gun laws in some states undercut tougher restrictions in others).

In Virginia, though, we sure make it easy for criminals to avoid them.

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Robert Zullo
Robert has been winning and losing awards as a reporter and editor for 13 years at weekly and daily newspapers, beginning at Worrall Community Newspapers in Union, N.J., where he was a staff writer and managing editor. He spent five years in south Louisiana covering hurricanes, oil spills and Good Friday crawfish boils as a reporter and city editor for the The Courier and the Daily Comet newspapers in Houma and Thibodaux. He covered Richmond city hall for the Richmond Times-Dispatch from 2012 to 2013 and worked as a general assignment and city hall reporter for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette from 2013 to 2016. He returned to Richmond in 2016 to cover energy, environment and transportation for the Richmond Times-Dispatch. He grew up in Miami, Fla., and central New Jersey. A former waiter, armored car guard and appliance deliveryman, he is a graduate of the College of William and Mary.