Making the most of your time at a gun show might sound counterintuitive. You’re there to walk around and see the pew pews, right? But if you’re attending hoping to spend some money, it helps if you have a plan. Check out our suggestions for making gun shows work for you.

Gun Show Versus Trade Show

Guns shows and trade shows are not the same thing. For example, attending your local gun show to pick up a new pistol is different from walking the floor at the NRA Annual Meeting. At a gun show, you can actually buy the guns on display. However, at a trade show you check out the new hotness but aren’t leaving the show floor with a gun in your hands. Visit a trade show to get an idea of what’s coming or available from dealers. Hit the gun show to make a purchase. Also keep in mind that many trade shows, like SHOT Show, are not open to the public and are meant for people working in the gun industry to do business.

Gun Show Versus Your Local Gun Store

Your local gun store (LGS) is that brick-and-mortar spot where you go to grab ammo on the way to the range or to, yes, buy a gun. At one point in time, you were always going to get a better deal on guns at a gun show than at a gun store. That isn’t really the case anymore. Sure, you might be able to haggle a bit at a gun show, but significant price point differences are no longer a given. You are more likely to find unique, out-of-production models at gun shows, though. And if you live in a city like Tacoma, Washington, where they recently threw additional taxes at gun stores, you’ll find that gun shows are a bit cheaper. That’s not because of the show prices but thanks to those extra taxes the government is applying at your LGS.

Gun Show Win

I love searching for unique guns at gun shows. Whether you’re in the market for a Colt Python or a Mosin Nagant, there is something for everyone. Sure, it depends on the show itself, but shows are the best place for an in-person transaction on that gun you’ve wanted for years. There are regional differences too. Just because you can find Mosins all over in Washington State, doesn’t mean you’re going to find them everywhere in Central Wisconsin.

That isn’t to say you cannot or should not look for a Glock or SIG at a gun show because you certainly can. Be familiar with the MSRP of the gun you want, its average dealer price and how that cost drops with use. Don’t expect to get a new gun for used prices and be suspicious if the opposite seems to be offered.

Gun Show Etiquette

Safety first. Just because you are at a gun show where guns should be unloaded does not mean they are. Never trust someone else’s safety check to cover you. Check the gun yourself. Follow the four golden rules of gun safety at all times. One of the things those of us who work show floors despise the most is the frequency with which we are muzzled by people swinging guns around haphazardly with the excuse of “well it’s unloaded.” Follow the four rules. If you want to dry-fire a gun, ask permission first. And keep following the rules during the process. Same goes for picking up a gun in the first place. Ask, don’t just grab. Always return firearms to the place and in the condition in which you found them.

Know your stuff. Do not go into a conversation with a seller knowing nothing about the gun you want to buy. It’s easy enough to do research in advance. Google has made life easier in many ways (although you do need to take information gleaned from the internet with a grain of salt). Branch out. Check multiple sources. This way you will not be taken advantage of by an unscrupulous seller and are far less likely to buy the wrong item from an inexperienced, uninformed seller who doesn’t know better.

Be familiar with the show guidelines. There will probably be a small admittance fee, although some are free for members of the club hosting the show. Go with cash in-hand, not only for admission but for purchases. Most sellers understandably do not take checks, and many do not have the ability to run a debit or credit card (and if they do there will be a fee attached). Also be aware of the show rules for carrying your own gun going in. On a related note, please do not draw your firearm to “show it off” to some guy at a table. Keep your gun holstered unless your life is being threatened.

Mind your business. Keep your nose out of interactions between sellers and potential buyers unless you are specifically asked for your input. Walking up and inserting yourself into a conversation is rude, unprofessional and unwanted. I don’t care if you are the end-all, be-all expert on all things Glock. Are you the guy selling the gun? Were you asked for your opinion or advice? No? Then keep out of it.

The Infamous Gun-Show Loophole

It’s all over the mainstream media so it must be true, right? Go to a gun show and you can walk out the door with a veritable armory of firearms with nothing but a wink and a smile. Actually, no. No, you cannot.

The gun show loophole is a myth. At some gun shows — typically the ones for members of gun clubs — those members have already passed background checks allowing legal purchase of firearms. At others, you’ll be expected to pass a background check through the specific seller. You’re dealing with licensed dealers requiring a current, government-issued ID. You will also have to fill out a Form 4473 (and pass the background check). You cannot simply waltz up to a table, throw a wad of cash down and leave with whatever you want.

According to the BATFE, federal law requires any person “engaging in the business of dealing firearms” to be licensed. That means he or she has to get an FFL and process sales accordingly, using NICS and a Form 4473 among other things. So how do they define the “business of dealing firearms?” Those dealing firearms are people who “devote time, attention and labor to dealing in firearms in a regular course of trade or business with the principal objective of livelihood and profit through the repetitive purchase and resale of firearms.”[1]

It is true that an individual looking to sell a personal firearm does not necessarily need to involve NICS. Some states allow private sales without a NICS check. Some states require a NICS check even for a private sale or transferring a firearm to a family member. However, the overwhelming majority of gun shows are restricted to licensed dealers. It is the exception to the rule to find a gun show with some guy selling a gun with no background check involved. In fact, it’s such a rarity it’s practically extinct.

Bottom Line

When you attend a gun show, have a plan. If you’re going to make a purchase, know what you are looking for and be familiar with its fair value. Many dealers at gun shows are going to be happy to haggle over price. It can be great, but don’t expect insane deals. Be realistic. If you’re going just to walk around, stay out of the way of legitimate buyers. Don’t ask a seller to cut ties or wires on a gun so you can handle it when you have no intention of buying it.

Side note: If you have kids, absolutely do not allow them to run amok. Kids at a gun show should be well-behaved, under control and well-versed in gun safety. Don’t be That Guy with the kids grabbing firearms, running into attendees and generally wreaking havoc.

Above all, have fun. Gun shows are a great way to spend time among your people, make friends and take a closer look at a wide variety of firearms. Show up early to get first pick and hit the show at its end for last-minute deals. Be persistent. Be polite. And again, follow the four golden rules.

About Kat Ainsworth

Outdoor writer Kat Ainsworth has been carrying concealed for 15 years and hunting for more than 20 years. She writes for a variety of industry publications, covering hunting, ballistics and self-defense, though she has a background in K9 Search-and-Rescue and emergency veterinary medicine. Kat enjoys traveling as part of her gun-related lifestyle. She has yet to find a firearm she didn’t want to fire.


[1] US DOJ BATFE, “Do I Need a License to Buy and Sell Firearms?” page 2