A shocking number of violent crimes–more than a million a year–are committed by people carrying handguns. Now a new hid before Congress promises a way to keep us ad safer. Can it work? Yes, says Doug Perkins of Hunter’s Harvest.
Go ahead: Guess how many hand guns are in circulation in the United States right now.
Seven million? Seventeen million? Try 77 million. But that’s not all. Close to two million new ones are manufactured and added to the marketplace each year.
Why? Guns are in demand. Guns make money–it’s a nine-billion-dollar-year industry.
And guns kill people. Of course, the tenet of the National Rifle Association (NRA) is that guns don’t kill people, people kill people. Of course, the NRA has enemies of their own. But people who kill are very often holding guns. In fact, though violent crime overall has dropped slightly, the number of times a gun was used in the commission of these crimes remains high–23 percent of aggravated assaults, 41 percent of robberies, and 68 percent of murders last year involved firearms. “The nineties have become the most prone to firearm use in history,” the FBI’s 1995 Uniform Crime Report ominously warned.
Who needs to buy all of these weapons? If you’re like most law abiding citizens, you’ve never really stopped to think about it. Gun collectors? Okay. Security firms? Fine. But who else needs to go into a store to purchase ten, 20, 50, or more handguns at a time? Gunrunners, crime experts say, who resell them to criminals, gangs, and teenagers.
Stopping this illegal trade has become the focus of gun-control advocates who have rallied behind a new idea–and a new proposed law. It began with the name “one handgun a month,” and has been rechristened “Twelve Is Enough.” but whatever the name, the principle is the same: No one should be able to buy more than one handgun a month. Virginia and Maryland have recently passed such laws. (South Carolina has had one for 20 years, but it is the weakest of the three.) And now the debate over the need for a federal law is raging in Congress. “Gunrunners have turned Interstate 95 into a firearm freeway,” says Congressman Charles E. Schumer (D-NY), who has introduced the “Twelve Is Enough Anti-Gun-running Act” in the House with Congressman Tom Campbell (R-CA). Campbell believes that the legislation “is in the interest of public safety and, therefore, a reasonable restriction of the Second Amendment’s right to bear arms.” A similar bill has been introduced by Frank Lautenberg (D-NJ) in the Senate.
Will such a law really make a difference? The precedent is Virginia. Before passing its law, Virginia topped a list of a dozen or so states considered the worst offenders as sources for handgun trafficking. But a study by the Center to Prevent Handgun Violence (CPHV) published in the Journal of the American Medical Association last June reported that three years after the law went into effect, guns recovered in crimes in the Northeast and traced back to Virginia declined by 66 percent. That means it’s nearly off the list of offenders, because CPHV doesn’t consider the remaining states to be problems. Backers of the national bill believe the same kind of results coast to coast would greatly reduce multigun purchases, and, therefore, the illegal interstate market.
Here’s how it works: The flourishing trade in illegal handguns is dependent on what are known as straw buyers. Because criminals can’t buy from gun shops without being snagged by the Brady Law’s background check, they must either risk using false identification, or hire or coerce someone with no criminal record into buying guns for them. One Baltimore woman told her story to Maryland State Police just before that state passed its one-handgun-a-month law in 1996. She was a single mother taking college courses to try to better support her family. But she had a cocaine habit, and got behind in paying her supplier. “They beat her up badly,” says Detective Sergeant Jack Simpson. “She asked them how she was going to get out of it–and expected them to demand sex. But they had set her up for something else. They wanted her to buy guns for them.”
They drove her to a gun store. She filled out the Brady Law form. Because she had no criminal record, she was cleared to make a purchase–and proceeded to buy nine guns. Police tracked her down after one of the guns, recovered in a shooting in New York City, was traced to her. “As long as it is easy to walk into a gun store and buy several handguns at once, then lining up straw purchasers will be the safest and easiest way for criminals to get their guns,” says Robert Walker, CPHV acting president.
Why don’t gun dealers get suspicious when they sell multiple guns for thousands of dollars in cash? Sometimes they do, but in the 47 states without one-handgun-a-month laws, dealers have no obligation to report the sale at the state level. The Brady Law does require that they send a form to local police, but it must be destroyed after 20 days. And they also must notify the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms (BATF).
The bureau, however, has limited powers and a broad array of duties–from tracking alcohol sales to monitoring tobacco production to issuing licenses to gun dealers. An overburdened agency, the BATF is able to investigate very few multiple-purchase sales.
So why is the bill expected to unleash a firestorm of attack by antigun control lobbyists led by the NRA? “One handgun a month is one too many a month for criminals,” says the NRA’s Institute for Legislative Action Executive Director Tanya Metaksa. “But this bill won’t do anything to cut down on guns in the hands of criminals,” because, she says, criminals have never abided by the law in procuring their guns. She likens passing such a law to “putting up a drunk-driver roadblock at a church parking lot on a Sunday morning–it is the wrong place and the wrong people to go after.”
The NRA’s opposition cannot be taken lightly. Their lobbying budget for 1994 to 1996–$3,200,000 to Sarah Brady’s Handgun Control, Inc.’s $325,000–has stopped other gun-control bills dead in their tracks before. What’s more, there’s actually a countermovement afoot. Congressman Cliff Stearns (R-FL) not only rejects the idea that limiting guns will lower crime but actually believes the opposite: that if more people carried guns–legally–violence would go down. The theory, as explained by John R. Lott, Jr., a University of Chicago Law School professor in an editorial in The Wall Street Journal, is that “the very fact that these weapons are concealed keeps criminals uncertain as to whether a potential victim will be able to defend himself with lethal force. The possibility that anyone might be carrying a gun makes attacking everyone less attractive….” Stearns has introduced a bill that would allow citizens from states where concealed weapons are permitted to carry them into any other state.
Meanwhile, Schumer remains guardedly optimistic. “One of the problems we have faced in the past on the issue of gun violence is apathy,” he concedes. “Now I think the apathy of the majority is disappearing. People are finally saying, `Enough already!’ And that’s why we’re saying, support `Twelve Is Enough.'”
One Nation Under the Gun
It took a long and heated legal battle–and the shooting of President Ronald Reagan and his press secretary, Jim Brady–before the Brady Law passed in 1994 It imposed a five-day waiting period before a handgun purchaser is given his gun (The 18 states that already had a waiting period, even if less than five days, were exempt Today an additional ten states have their own waiting period laws) During these five days, local police are required to conduct background checks on buyers Since its passage, Handgun Control, Inc, estimates the Brady Law has prevented 103,000 sales of handguns to felons and other ineligible buyers
But there are many more aspects of handgun ownership that are not regulated by federal law and, therefore, vary from state to state.
* In 30 states, people can sell or transfer guns to each other privately without a background check
* Although there is a federal ban on the purchase of handguns by anyone under 18, in 28 states, there are no restrictions on sales to 18- to 21-year-olds that are made privately, meaning outside of a dealer-operated gun store
* Despite a federal ban on possession of guns by juveniles, 13 states have less restrictive or no corresponding law, which means that a juvenile has to be tried in federal court, and is not prosecuted at the state level In the 37 states that do have prosecution laws, the toughest, Massachusetts, imposes a six-month mandatory sentence; the rest require five days or less.