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Rationing Handgun Purchasing Rights

Thursday, July 29, 1999

In 1968, President Lyndon B. Johnson(1) signed the Gun Control Act, thereby prohibiting sales of firearms by dealers or individuals in one state to individuals from other states.(2) Later, by regulations, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms (BATF) began requiring licensed firearms dealers to file "Multiple Purchase Reporting Forms" with the agency to document the sale, to an individual, of more than one handgun in a 30-day period. That policy became law under a provision of the Firearms Owners' Protection Act(1986).

Nevertheless, in 1975, after a TV network news report portrayed South Carolina as the primary source state for handguns used in New York City crime, Palmetto State legislators imposed a law limiting handgun purchases to one in a 30-day period. Since 1974, the last year before the gun rationing law took effect, the New York City metropolitan area violent crime rate has risen 25%, while South Carolina's rate has risen a whopping 126%. As South Carolina State Senator Joe Wilson observed in 1993, South Carolina's "tragic crime problem is proof that limiting gun sales to one a month has failed to make a dent in violent crime in our state... You don't impact criminals by taking a swipe at honest citizens."

In the late 1970s and early 1980s, legislation introduced by Sen. Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.) and Rep. Peter Rodino (D-N.J.) called for a law requiring prospective handgun buyers to first obtain photo-ID permits-to-purchase from the police, limiting handgun purchases by a person to no more than two per year, and imposing a 21-day waiting period on handgun purchases. The bill targeted legitimate firearms collectors and other honest gun owners, rather than criminals, and was never approved.

The concept of rationing firearms purchasing rights resurfaced in 1993, when Virginia's Governor Doug Wilder,(3) approaching the end of his term in office and desperate to attract favorable attention from the media to further his national political ambitions,(4) proposed a so-called "one-gun-a-month" law for the Old Dominion. Wilder alleged that Virginia's supposedly lax gun laws had caused it to become the primary "source state" for handguns used by criminals in Washington, D.C. and New York City. Then-current crime data (1992) proved that Virginia gun laws were not the cause of crime in the District of Columbia or in the Big Apple. The total violent crime rate was 13 times higher, and the homicide rate was 23 times higher, in D.C.,where guns are nearly prohibited, than in the Northern Virginia jurisdictions of the D.C. metropolitan statistical area, which have relatively unintrusive gun laws. Despite its restrictive gun owner licensing and gun registration laws, New York City's violent crime and homicide rates were, respectively, 11 and 8 times higher than those in Northern Virginia, where "easy access" to guns was supposedly a leading cause of crime.(5)

Wilder ignored the data and stuck to his "gun-runner" rhetoric, claiming "[t]he surest way to stop the number of guns available for illegal sale is to place limits on the numbers that can be purchased legally." As he spoke, though, not one single out-of-state gun-runner had been prosecuted under Virginia law for an illegal gun purchase.

The supposed "evidence" the governor offered to prove the need for rationing handgun purchasing rights appeared in two forms, one of which was, literally, comical. As the debate over the gun rationing bill heated up, Wilder sent state legislators copies of a Batman comic book with a story line portraying Virginia as the leading gun-running state on the East Coast. One character in the Batman story complained that highly restrictive gun laws were prevented from being enacted "because some fat white b-----d wants to play with his guns on a weekend." The Caped Crusader endorsed a complete ban on private ownership of firearms, sermonizing that violent crime "will end when we decide that we don't want guns in our houses, in our neighborhoods, in our schools, in our hands. It will end when we decide to get rid of the guns we have and not get more."

The other "evidence" supplied by gun rationing supporters consisted of misrepresentations of data from Project Lead, a firearms trace operation conducted by the BATF over the previous decade. Firearms rights opponents have misused tracing data ever since the anti-gun Cox newspaper chain claimed that BATF traces showed that "An assault gun is 20 times more likely to be used incrime than a conventional firearm."(6)

BATF's firearms traces do not match guns -- so-called "assault weapons" or any other -- to crimes, however. According to the Congressional Research Service (CRS),(7) "[B]ATF does not always know if a firearm being traced has been used in a crime. For instance, sometimes a firearm is traced simply to determine the rightful owner after it is found by a law enforcement agency."  Additional findings by the CRS, all of which were ignored by the media, included:

 

  • "A law enforcement officer may initiate a trace request for any reason. No crime need be involved."

     

  • "Trace requests are not accurate indicators of specified crimes. . . . Traces may be requested for a variety of reasons not necessarily related to criminal incidents."

     

  • "Firearms selected for tracing do not constitute a random sample and cannot be considered representative of the larger universe of all firearms used by criminals."

     

  • "The absence of a screening policy to ensure that trace requests are related to crimes, the omission of any reference to crimes on some requests, the omission or inclusion of certain firearms from the system, and -- most significantly -- ATF's recent statement that it does not 'always know' if a traced firearm has been used in a crime, provide foundation for questions as to whether the data from the tracing system provide representative information on firearms used in crimes."

     

During the Virginia gun rationing debate, it was discovered that Project Lead had received trace information on only 6% of firearms recovered by New York City police in 1991 and 1992. Between Jan. 1 - Oct. 1, 1992, 13,382 firearms were recovered by NYPD, of which only 1,231 were traced. During the same period, approximately 119,350 violent crimes, including approximately 1,490 homicides, occurred in New York City.

Of firearms found at the scenes of violent crimes in New York City, only 32 had been originally sold retail in Virginia; only three of the guns "traced to Virginia" had been "found" at homicide scenes. Project Lead was unable to determine whether traced firearms had been stolen from the original buyer. According to BATF, "it is difficult to trace firearms after the first retail purchase."

Additionally, while the U.S. Department of Justice has determined that 81% of felons consider a gun's untraceability "important,"(8) the only firearms submitted for tracing were those less than two years old. No attempt was made to determine if any of the firearms had been acquired as part of a "multiple purchase." At the same time, many firearms actually used to commit violent crimes are never recovered and therefore, are not traced. Despite the inherent shortcomings of the firearms tracing system, firearms ownership opponents continue to misuse its data for political expedience.

At the time of the Virginia debate, South Carolina ranked worst among the 50 states in aggravated assault rates, fifth in total violent crime, and higher than national rates for murder, rape, and robbery. Virginia, without gun rights rationing, ranked well below national rates in all violent crime categories, and 37th in violent crime overall. In public meetings with legislators held around the state, thousands of gun owners voiced their opposition to the proposed gun rights rationing bill. Yet the bill was passed, and gun rationing took effect in Virginia during July 1993 with no apparent effect on crime.

While the Virginia's gun rights rationing bill was being debated, a similar bill appeared in 103rd Congress. H.R. 544, The Multiple Handgun Transfer Prohibition Act of 1993, introduced in the U.S. House of Representatives by veteran anti-gunner Robert G. Torricelli (D-N.J.), would have made it a federal crime for any individual to purchase more than one handgun within any 30-day period, with penalties of up to a year in prison and $1,000 in fines for violators. S. 1878/H.R. 3932, a sweeping proposal by archanti-gunners Sen. Howard Metzenbaum (D-Ohio) and Rep. Charles Schumer(D-N.Y.) also included a "one-gun-a-month" limit. In the 104th Congress, Rep. Torricelli reintroduced his one-gun-limit bill, H.R.964. Rep. Schumer introduced H.R. 1321, dubbed the "Brady II" bill, which contains a gun-limit proposal along with provisions to increase the cost of a federal firearms license (FFL) to $3000/3 years, require an FFL to sell ammunition, require states to impose handgun permit laws, prohibit sales of handguns at gun shows, empower the BATF to conduct unlimited inspections of FFL records without search warrants, appropriate $2 million for "gun control," and other attacks on firearm ownership.

Nationwide, violent crime declined 4.2% and homicide declined 5.3% 1993-1994, and continued to drop through the first half of 1995, according to recent FBI reports. In Dec. 1995, Attorney General Janet Reno credited the decline to community policing, while criminologists attributed the trend to the maturing of gang members, who are now less willing to resolve turf disputes violently. Anti-gun activists, of course, have a different view. They pretend that restrictions on lawful firearms owners have made the country safer, though crime trends have been more favorable in states unaffected by those restrictions. They point out that the homicide rate in Washington,D.C., across the Potomac River from Virginia and its one-handgun-per-month limit, declined 11% 1993-1994, without noting that homicide declined more in 12 states, including not only some near D.C. -- Pennsylvania (13%), West Virginia (22%), Vermont (72%), New Hampshire(30%) and New York (17%) -- but others across the country, including Alaska (30%), North Dakota (88%), South Dakota(59%), Iowa (26%), Nebraska (21%), Georgia (12%) and Oklahoma(18%).

"Gun control" supporters' theory that D.C. criminals have been affected by Virginia's 30-day limit law is difficult to accept for another reason -- the history of gun laws and D.C. crime rates. The 1968 Gun Control Act made it a federal crime to sell or give a handgun to any individual not a resident of the seller's state, and D.C.'s 1975 handgun law made it a crime for D.C. residents to acquire handguns under any circumstances. Yet D.C.'s homicide rate rose 36% between passage of the two laws, and 146% 1975-1991 (when homicide peaked), an overall increase of 234%, evidence that D.C. criminals ignored federal and D.C. gun laws, as well as those against murder, just as they currently ignore Virginia's law.

 

  1. In signing the Gun Control Act, Johnson bemoaned the fact that it did not require gun registration.
  2. The Firearms Owners' Protection Act (1986) amended the Gun Control Act to, among other things, permit a licensed firearms dealer to sell a rifle or shotgun to an individual residing in another state, provided that the transaction occurs in-person at the dealer's business premises and does not violate the laws of either the dealer's or purchaser's states. Interstate sales of handguns remain prohibited.
  3. As a state legislator, Wilder opposed mandatory sentences for gun-wielding felons, opposed reinstating the death penalty in Virginia, even for mass murderers, and opposed denying parole to twice-convicted felons.
  4. In 1994, Wilder attempted a run, as an independent candidate, for the U.S. Senate, but threw in the towel when polls indicated little support for his candidacy among Virginia voters.
  5. FBI Uniform Crime Reports, Virginia State Police, New York Division of Criminal Justice. Crime rates for Virginia statewide, and its metropolitan areas, were similarly below those of New York City and the District of Columbia. Those cities' higher crime rates included higher rates of non-firearm related crimes as well as those committed with firearms.
  6. Jim Stewart and Andrew Alexander, "Assault Weapons Muscle In On the Front Lines of Crime," Cox Washington Bureau, May 21, 1989.
  7. Keith Bea, et al., CRS Report for Congress: "Assault Weapons": Military-Style Semiautomatic Firearms Facts and Issues, Library of Congress, Congressional Research Service, May 13, 1992, rev. June 4, 1992. (92-434 GOV)
  8. James D. Wright and Peter H. Rossi, Armed and Considered Dangerous: A Survey of Felons and Their Firearms, New York: Aldine de Gruyter, 1986
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