KANSAS CITY, Mo. – AK-47s. SKS sniper rifles. Armor-piercing bullets. Machine gun displays.

It’s just another weekend at a Kansas City gun show, where there is so much firepower at your fingertips that even some gun enthusiasts shake their heads in wonder.

But the shows – which gained popularity in the 1990s and now number in the thousands nationwide – are coming under increasing fire as critics claim they are contributing to the incidence of violent crime.

“Gun shows are one of our main problems,” said Kansas City Mayor Pro Tem Alvin Brooks. ” These are the guns that end up on the streets of America.”

Brooks recalled several teens who were shot last year in retaliation for robbing a drug dealer at gunpoint.

“One got killed, one lost a leg, and one was paralyzed,” Brooks said. “This one fellow who I talked to (at the hospital) said they had bought those guns at gun shows. He said all you have to do is be 18 years old, and sometimes they don’t ask you anything if you’ve got cash.”

Critics contend that the biggest problem is a legal loophole that allows criminals and others who are prohibited from buying a firearm to obtain guns from unlicensed sellers at guns shows. In most states, including Missouri and Kansas, no background checks are required to buy long guns – including assault rifles – from sellers who do not have a federal firearms license.

Gun-rights advocates maintain, however, that there is no “gun show loophole.”

“If anyone is involved in the trade of selling and buying firearms, they have to obtain a federal firearms license,” said Andrew Arulanandam, director of public affairs for the National Rifle Association. “That is the law of the land today, so to say that there’s a loophole is disingenuous.”

While Arulanandam acknowledged that unlicensed sellers do not have to conduct background checks, he said they were in the “distinct minority.”

Local law enforcement authorities insist gun shows remain a major concern.

Impressive weapons

“I think the average person would be in awe at what’s all legal now,” said Maj. Anthony Ell, commander of the Kansas City Police Department’s violent crimes division. “Individuals who may not be able to get them legally through proper licensed dealers, that gun show loophole allows them to bypass all of that and get guns.”

But Paul Marquardt, a spokesman for the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives in Kansas City, said the agency is more concerned about “the people who illegally sell firearms to criminals” such as felons, illegal aliens or drug traffickers.

“The ATF does not target gun shows, we target criminals who are trying to acquire firearms from any source whether it’s in a back alley or anywhere else,” Marquardt said.

Gun sellers interviewed by The Kansas City Star said that despite the presence of law enforcement authorities, illegal sales and gun thefts occur at area shows. A reporter observed one questionable firearm transaction at a recent show. And a vendor said someone had stolen handguns from him and another vendor.

What’s more, the leader of a white supremacist gang of bank robbers told The Star that he and his partners found that gun shows in Missouri and Kansas were a quick way to buy and dump weapons used in their crimes.

“It was incredibly easy,” said Peter Langan, who in the 1990s was the head of the Aryan Republican Army, a group that prosecutors say was responsible for 22 bank robberies in the Midwest. “Gun shows, just for the sheer volume and selection, you just couldn’t beat em,” Langan said in a telephone interview from prison, where he is serving a life sentence.

One of Langan’s convicted associates, Kevin McCarthy, told the FBI after he was arrested that he had used one of those guns in a 1994 bank heist in Missouri. “McCarthy utilized a 9mm Ruger Pistol, Model PT-89,” an FBI special agent wrote in an investigative summary obtained by The Star. “McCarthy had previously purchased this pistol at a gun show in Kansas City, Mo.”

Brooks said the teen wounded in last year’s shootout told him that his friends often would go to shows to buy and resell guns. They preferred lethal-looking weapons similar to the TEC-DC9 with a 30-round clip that police took off a young man at the St. Patrick’s Day parade.

“The AR-15, the TEC-9 and the AK-47 are what they’re getting,” Brooks said.

Double standard

When Congress passed the Brady Bill in 1993, it put in place what some consider a double standard for the purchase of guns. Licensed dealers have to conduct background checks on buyers while unlicensed sellers – private individuals and collectors – do not.

Critics say that means criminals and others who are prohibited from buying a firearm can skirt the law and get guns from unlicensed sellers at gun shows.

For years, gun-safety advocates have called for federal legislation to close what they contend is a gun show loophole. But the gun lobby has argued that would shut down gun shows, and the legislation has stalled.

Eighteen states, however, have passed laws that either require background checks before the purchase of any firearms at gun shows or require buyers to first obtain a permit. Missouri, for example, requires a permit for all handgun purchases, although long guns and assault rifles do not require one.

But the remaining states – including Kansas – still allow buyers to purchase firearms from unlicensed sellers at gun shows without obtaining a permit or undergoing a criminal background check.

Gun-rights advocates contend that most people who sell guns at gun shows are licensed dealers, not private sellers, so it is not that big a problem.

“There are only a few people who buy tables to dispose of private collections,” said Kevin Jamison, a Gladstone lawyer and member of the Western Missouri Shooters Alliance. “That’s been rare, and it’s getting more and more unusual.”

But the ATF estimates that up to one-fourth of the gun sellers at shows are unlicensed. And authorities argue that criminals and illegal gun traffickers are wise to that, although they’re also getting firearms from licensed dealers.

Last month, an ATF official testified before a congressional subcommittee that more than 400 firearms purchased at gun shows in the Richmond, Va., area between 2002 and 2005 were later used in crimes. Checks of 302 people who had purchased guns from licensed dealers at those shows in a 15-month period revealed that 47 had provided false addresses.

An earlier report on illegal weapons by the ATF found that gun shows were the second-leading source of illegal firearms recovered in gun-trafficking investigations. In some cases, known or suspected terrorists bought guns at shows.

Clean’ guns

A known member of Hezbollah, for example, was convicted in 2001 in a federal court in Michigan for trying to smuggle guns into Lebanon. An undercover agent saw the man buy a weapon at a gun show without a background check.

Gun-rights advocates insist the shows are not a major source of weapons used in crimes. The NRA cites a 2001 Bureau of Justice Statistics report that said fewer than 1 percent of guns used in crimes came from gun shows.

“The biggest source of crime firearms is the black market,” Arulanandam said. “Law enforcement always refers to criminals looking for a clean gun. What they’re referring to is they want to find a firearm that’s not traceable. And every time you go through a retail outlet or any FFL (federal firearms licensed dealer), you have a long paper trail.”

Each year, more than 5,000 gun shows are held nationwide, according to the ATF. The National Association of Arms Shows says that an average of 2,500 to 3,000 people attend a typical show, purchasing between 100,000 and 300,000 guns annually.

“On any given weekend, there’s a gun show going on someplace,” Jamison said. “In the greater Kansas City area, there’s probably one to two gun shows in any given month.”

At a March 12 gun show at the 3 Trails Expo Center next to Bannister Mall, tables were teeming with handguns, assault rifles, knives and war memorabilia.

Several vendors were selling books and pamphlets such as “How to Make Disposable Silencers” and “Homemade Grenade Launchers.” A few publications described how to convert semiautomatic weapons into machine guns – which is illegal under federal law.

But overall, the show appeared to be taking steps to assure the safe handling of weapons, and there was visible security.

Signs at the entrance warned, “No Loaded Guns Inside.” Two off-duty Jackson County sheriff’s deputies checked guns brought into the building. Other deputies strolled the aisles of the show, which organizer Waylon Pearson of R.K. Shows in Manchester, Iowa, said drew 4,000 people.

Lee Morlang’s table included a Rock River AR-15 assault rifle for $850. Morlang said he was selling his private collection and therefore did not need a license. He estimated that 10 to 12 other vendors were unlicensed sellers who were not required to conduct background checks.

Morlang said he did not need any background check to tell him who should and should not be buying a gun. “I can read people like a book,” he said. “If we get a bad person in here, we get rid of em.”

Others at the show keep an eye out as well, he said. “There was a guard here yesterday, he saw two guys here that had been in prison. The minute they saw him, they hit the door.”

But apparently that does not prevent all crime at the shows. Morlang said someone recently stole a .44-caliber handgun from him as he was loading weapons after a show. The same thing happened to another vendor, he said.

As he spoke, Morlang watched two men near his booth. One handed the other a wad of cash, who then gave the man a handgun – a possible violation of the law which requires handgun purchasers to first obtain a permit.

“See right there?” Morlang asked. “There’s a transaction going on right in front of us of an unregistered gun.” He shook his head, adding, “it’s that kind of stuff that gives these shows a bad name.”

Dean Parr, owner of Dean’s Gun Shop in St. Joseph, Mo., said he and other licensed dealers have to abide by the same laws at gun shows as they do at their stores.

“If they buy a gun off an individual at a gun show, they don’t have to do the paperwork,” Parr conceded. “But they could do the same thing at a truck stop or somewhere else, too.”

Parr, however, doubted that many criminals were getting guns at the shows.

“If they are, it’s a very small percentage,” he said.