As with any gathering of homo sapiens, a certain amount of horse trading and assorted commerce attended such gatherings. By the time the Gun Control Act of 1968 created the "Federally Licensed Firearms Dealer", gun shows were naturally a place for them to ply their trade.
For years, there was an ongoing war between "brick & mortar" FFLs, who operated a storefront, and so-called "kitchen table" FFLs, who maintained a license so they could acquire guns at wholesale, order them for family or buddies at work, and maybe get a table at the local gun show. If they sold a gun or two at a 5% or 10% markup, it'd cover the fees for their one table, and the badge let them come in and wander the show freely. If they could talk a buddy or two into helping him cover the table in exchange for a free entrance, it'd make for a pretty pleasant weekend.
During the Clinton years, the then-BATF started shutting down "kitchen table" FFLs and smaller guys who were actually using their FFL to run a side business, setting up at local gun shows on the weekends. It didn't really require any new federal laws or regulations: Local zoning ordinances handled a large part of the grunt work. ("Did you know that Mr. Smith of 123 Local Street is running a retail firearms business out of his home? Is that in compliance with local zoning?")
As a result, the '90s were the salad days for cheap new guns at gun shows, between the surviving kitchen table guys whose overhead amounted to table fees, and the kitchen table guys who had already been shut down and were just selling off their remaining inventory before closing their acquisition/disposition books and sending them off to Washington.
For brick and mortar guys, don't expect them to be able to slash prices at the show. They run shows one of two ways:
- Close the store on show weekends. Gun show is an all-hands evolution, requiring all the guns to be loaded into a trailer, schlepped to the site of the show, set up, torn down again at show's end, hauled back to the store and re-displayed there. I've done this for a guy who usually had a 20 table setup. It's a brutal, backbreaking way to spend a weekend.
- Keep the store open on the weekends and have a complete second inventory pre-loaded on a trailer, ready to go. This is easier, but requires double the manpower, since you're keeping the storefront open during the show, and obviously requires more overhead in inventory. Inventory is not an asset; it is money tied up not doing anything until it sells.
The only real advantage of buying new, current production guns at a show instead of at the dealer's storefront is that you can comparison-shop by walking across a room instead of driving across town. Gun shows still shine for bulk ammo and reloading components, unless you charge as much to haul a hunnert pounds of lead to your front door as UPS does.
Me? I'm not there for the new guns. If I want a new gun, I know where to buy them. I just want to talk to that old guy at the table in the corner, the one who looks like he's been there since before 1968, and ask him how much he wants for that ol' Luger. It's a bit beat up for a collector, but it looks like it'd make a fine shooter, don't you think?