Jesse Ray Mathews, the man charged with killing Chattanooga police Sgt. Tim Chapin in a shootout after fleeing an armed robbery of a Brainerd pawnshop on April 2, potentially could have triggered far greater bloodshed had he carried the guitar case from his car into the pawnshop that day. The case contained an AR-15, a semiautomatic assault rifle like those used in combat by U.S. Marines and soldiers, and 300 rounds of ammunition.
It’s not hard to imagine the scenario that might have occurred had the shooter taken the assault rifle with him. Instead of firing a handgun through the store’s plate-glass window at the policemen who answered a silent alarm that day, the shooter’s weapon could have been the rapid-firing AR-15. With that powerful weapon and so much ammunition, several officers might have been killed or wounded.
Fortunately, the assault rifle and ammo were left behind. The grim irony, however, is that Mathews got the AR-15 through a perfectly legally transaction and without a background check, all because of this nation’s notorious gun show loophole.
Mathews simply went to the R.K. Shows gun show at the National Guard Armory in Chattanooga on March 27, just eight days before he allegedly shot Chapin in the face.
In Tennessee and most other states, private individuals of legal age may buy or sell guns and rifles at gun shows without the sort of instant background checks and record keeping required of federally licensed retail gun shop dealers. Private sellers don’t have to make record of the gun, the sale or the purchaser, and private purchasers don’t have to register the guns or fill out any records. All they have do is make a cash buy and walk out.
Mathews didn’t even have to pay cash for the rifle. According to a federal affidavit compiled in the investigation after the Chapin shooting, Mathews went to the gun show, found what he wanted, called his family to bring several of the 16 guns he had stolen earlier in a robbery of a Colorado pawnshop, and traded three of those stolen pistols for the AR-15.
Had he attempted such a transaction at a retail gun shop, he would have been subject to a background check. That check would have instantly revealed he was a parole violator with a felony record, and blocked the purchase. If he had used a clean straw purchaser to attempt the swap, a related check of the guns’ serial numbers would also have revealed that the three handguns were stolen, and it would have alerted federal agents to the attempted purchase and trade.
But because Congress and state legislatures have refused to close the gun show loophole by making sales subject to the retail dealer standards for background checks and record keeping, it was easy for a parole violator and felon wanted in Colorado on armed robbery charges to visit a gun show, make a deal without records and walk out with an assault rifle.
Studies of this outrageous loophole have long documented it as a main source of guns purchased by criminals. Advocates of sane gun-control laws in Congress and various state legislatures have tried repeatedly to require routine background-check standards for individuals who sell guns, especially at gun shows. But because the National Rifle Association has put the fear of defeat in politicians, its elected lackeys — mainly Republicans, but including some Democrats — have learned to avoid the subject. They instead prove their enslavement to NRA ideologues by promoting ever broader rights to carry guns in parks, churches, bars and on college campuses.
If voters were angry enough about gun-toting criminals and gang members to demand tighter gun show regulation, however, lawmakers would probably respond.
But because voters won’t coalesce in support of ending the gun show loophole, it survives and continues to arm criminals and spawn vast numbers of shootings and deaths every year in America. The result is seen regularly here in gang-related deaths, and sometimes in the deaths of innocent citizens and, potentially, our police officers — whose chiefs routinely oppose the gun show loophole.
But who cares? Certainly not our state representatives and senators.