TAMPA — Khaled Akkawi has become practiced in weaving through thick crowds on a Segway at his Florida Gun Shows.
He zooms around tables covered in zip-tied pistols, past customers with rifles slung over their shoulders and boxes of ammunition in hand. He sets a blunt, if harried, tone.
At Akkawi’s roving gun show, taking place this weekend at the Florida State Fairgrounds, anyone selling a gun is supposed to perform a background check on buyers — no matter if it’s a private sale or one performed by a licensed dealer. The rule means this two-day bonanza is an example of what similar events could look like if a bill to close the so-called gun show loophole, proposed this year by Thonotosassa Republican state Sen. Tom Lee, becomes law.
The legislation would make anyone conducting a private sale at a gun show — one citizen to another — go to a licensed dealer’s booth to perform an official background check first. Under current federal and state law, private gun owners can make such sales without performing a background check.
In Hillsborough County, an ordinance requires background checks for private sales, and Akkawi, also the owner of the Shoot Straight gun store chain, said he decided several years ago to encourage them at his shows.
“We just want to make sure that people buying firearms here can pass a background check,” he said. “It’s a business decision and a conscience decision, too.”
The check usually takes no more than 20 minutes and costs $5, gun dealers say. It confirms that a buyer does not have a criminal history that would prohibit them from legally owning a firearm.
The law proposed by Lee would not require universal background checks. Instead it would allow most private sales to take place if a gun owner looks at the buyer’s ID and has them fill out a form, with questions about whether they’re a felon or a fugitive, to be signed and witnessed by a notary public. The seller would be responsible for holding onto the form, like a receipt, in case the gun was one day used in a crime.
Lee’s bill has divided Republicans and appears unlikely to pass this session. The National Rifle Association denounced the proposal, with powerful lobbyist Marion Hammer calling it an “attempt to ban private sales through red tape and fear.”
Licensed dealers on Saturday said such legislation would not really close the background check loophole, which they said is misunderstood and not isolated to gun shows.
“If it’s about private sales, you can do it in a Publix parking lot,” said Scott Rollf, who runs an outfit called 22mods4all in Longwood.
Keith Moreau, of Pompano Gun & Pawn, said he has sold firearms for three decades. While private deals used to be common — and still do happen at smaller gun shows — he said they are rarer at Akkawi’s big event, where two signs at the entrance advise: “Absolutely no private sales allowed in this facility. You can only sell to a dealer. If you wish to sell to a non-dealer, the transaction must go thru a licensed dealer and must have a background check completed.”
“He’s probably one of the only promoters in the entire state that enforce it,” Moreau said. “Thirty years ago privates is what started gun shows. … In today’s world you just can’t do it.”
Surrounded by tables of long guns and pistols, Moreau said he supports background checks because they make it harder for dangerous people to get guns.
“The world’s gone crazy,” he said. “The world’s gone mad.”
Akkawi’s Shoot Straight booths lined two aisles in the middle of the expo hall at the Florida State Fairgrounds. When people buy a gun, they hand over their license, which is then attached to the gun case with a binder clip and passed on the floor to tables where customers fill out background check forms and, once approved, pay for their weapon. If someone has a concealed carry permit, they take their new gun home that day. If not, they must wait five days before picking it up.
Akkawi said private sellers occasionally come over for background checks, but only four or five times a day. Many people bring in guns, he said, but they are often looking to trade for newer models from a dealer.
It’s almost impossible to make sure no one breaks the rules. Morgan Waters, an event manager, said authorities are supposed to walk around and help monitor the busy room.
The expo hall hums with sales pitches and the lightning-strike sizzle of stun guns. The air smells fried; a concession stand in the corner advertises empanadas. One booth offers fanny packs, another encourages voter registration next to a cardboard cutout of President Donald Trump.
Akkawi knows some people might come in only to find a buyer then go elsewhere to finish their deal.
“These things happen at work, at church,” he said. “They happen everywhere.”
Scott Creutz, 31, of Clearwater, said he exchanged revolvers with another man at a gun show last year without performing a background check but felt comfortable because they looked at each other’s concealed carry permits and the man was a licensed dealer.
He carried a Ruger 10/22 rifle Saturday that he hoped to sell after performing a background check.
“I don’t think it’s really a hassle,” he said.
Paul Messina, 65, of St. Petersburg said he doesn’t often see private sales happen in the open at gun shows. The former police officer from Trenton, N.J. said it’s too risky to make a deal without a background check.
“I could be selling it to a criminal or a nut,” he said.
Messina walked into the event Saturday with a friend, who was looking to sell a gun in a long case. A man approached them only a couple of steps from the door, before they could even reach the bathroom or a booth, and asked:
“What kind of shotgun are you selling?”
The Florida Gun Shows event will continue Sunday at the Florida State Fairgrounds from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Admission is $11.