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One Gun A Month: Rationing a Constitutionally-Protected Right

Thursday, March 9, 2000

So-called "one-gun-a-month" laws prohibit law-abiding citizens from purchasing more than one handgun at a time, and impose a 30-day waiting period between single handgun purchases. Supporters of such laws claim that they are needed to prevent criminals in states with relatively unrestrictive gun laws from buying large quantities of handguns for illegal resale in high-crime cities like Washington, D.C., and New York City. Reasons to oppose one-gun-a-month laws include:

They set a bad and unconstitutional precedent, namely, that government can limit the frequency with which a law-abiding citizen may exercise a constitutionally-protected right. The delay between purchases that the laws impose has been set at 30 days utterly arbitrarily, implying that the limit on the exercise of that right could be arbitrarily changed to "one-per-year," "one-per-lifetime" or "none ever," and/or extended to rifles and shotguns, or that similar limits could be imposed upon the exercise of other constitutionally-protected rights, such as attending organized religious services and publishing political commentaires.

  • Under federal law interstate handgun sales have been prohibited since 1968. Firearm dealers are required to report to BATF and state or local law enforcement officials any person who buys more than one handgun in a five-day period. All retail firearm sales are subject to the National Instant Check System, which verifies that prospective purchasers are not prohibited from possessing firearms.
  • According to BATF, most firearms recovered by police and later traced have not come from across state lines. Anti-gun activists have denied this for years.
  • "One-gun-a-month" laws have been tried in three states and have failed. After South Carolina imposed its law in 1975, violent crime soared in both New York City, the supposed beneficiary of the law, and in S.C. In the 1990s, violent crime declined nationally, but after Virginia imposed its law in 1993, homicide declined more in 12 other states than it did in D.C., the supposed beneficiary of Virginia`s law. Maryland imposed its law in 1998, yet the state has the highest robbery rate of any state, and Baltimore`s homicide rate is among the worst of all major U.S. cities.
  • "One-gun-a-month" cannot be enforced without a law requiring all guns to be registered which, in turn, is also not enforceable.
  • People who disobey laws against murder and other violent crimes, and those against selling guns across state lines and selling guns to criminals, are not going to obey a law prohibiting them from buying a second handgun in a 30-day period.
  • Instead of preventing criminals from getting guns, "one-gun-a-month" primarily affects gun collectors, who buy matched sets of pistols, those with consecutive serial numbers, and the like.

Background

In 1968, President Lyndon B. Johnson1 signed the Gun Control Act, which, among other things, prohibited selling a firearm to a resident of another state.2 Later, by regulation, 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).

In the late 1970s and early 1980s, legislation introduced by Sen. Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.) and Rep. Peter Rodino (D-N.J.) proposed requiring prospective handgun buyers to first obtain photo-ID permits-to-purchase from the police, limiting handgun purchases by a person to two per year, and imposing a 21-day waiting period on individual handgun purchases.3 The bill targeted legitimate firearms collectors and other honest gun owners, rather than criminals, and was never approved. In 1975, after a TV network news report portrayed South Carolina as the primary "source state" for handguns used in New York City crime, S.C. limited handgun purchases to one in a 30-day period.

The concept of limiting the frequency with which individuals may exercise the right to buy arms resurfaced in 1993, when Virginia governor Doug Wilder, approaching the end of his term and desperate to attract attention from the media to further his national political ambitions,5 proposed a "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 D.C. or in N.Y.C. 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 part of the D.C. metropolitan area, which has 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, according to "gun control" theory, should cause crime rates to soar.6

Nor had South Carolina`s law performed as promised. From imposition of that state`s one-a-month law through 1993, the New York City metropolitan area violent crime rate had risen 25%, while South Carolina`s rate had risen a whopping 126%. South Carolina State Senator Joe Wilson observed in 1993, his state`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."

Wilder disagreed, 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 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 "one-a-month" appeared in two forms, one of which was, literally, comical. As the debate over gun rights rationing heated up, Wilder sent 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" consisted of misrepresentations of data from Project Lead, a firearms trace operation conducted by BATF over the previous decade. Anti-gun activists have misused tracing data ever since the Cox newspaper chain falsely claimed that traces showed that "An assault gun is 20 times more likely to be used in crime than a conventional firearm."7

BATF`s firearms traces do not match guns to crimes, however. According to the Congressional Research Service (CRS), "(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." 8 Additional findings by the CRS included:

  • "A law enforcement officer may initiate a trace request for any reason. No crime need be involved."
  • "(T)races may be requested for a variety of reasons not necessarily related to criminal incidents."
  • "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 rights rationing debate, it was discovered that Project Lead had received trace information on only 6% of firearms recovered by NYPD 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 N.Y.C.

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,"9 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 thereafter.

While the Virginia`s bill was being debated, Robert G. Torricelli (D-N.J.) introduced H.R. 544, The Multiple Handgun Transfer Prohibition Act of 1993, in the U.S. House of Representatives, which would have prohibited an individual from purchasing more than one handgun in a 30-day period, with penalties of up to a year in prison and $1,000 in fines for violators. Sen. Howard Metzenbaum (D-Ohio) and Rep. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) introduced S. 1878/H.R. 3932, a sweeping proposal which included a one-a-month limit. In the 104th Congress, Torricelli reintroduced his bill as H.R. 964. Schumer introduced H.R. 1321, dubbed the "Brady II" bill, which contained a gun-limit proposal along with provivions to increase the cost of a federal firearms license (FFL) to $3000/3 years, require ammunition sellers to be licensed, require states to impose handgun permit laws, prohibit sales of handguns at gun shows, empower BATF to conduct unlimited inspections of FFL records without search warrants, appropriate $2 million for "gun control," and other attacks on firearms.

During the 105th Congress, Schumer introduced H.R. 12, the "Twelve is Enough Anti-Gunrunning Act," and asked, "Who needs more than 12 handguns a year?" The bill proposed to prohibit a dealer from selling more than one handgun to a non-dealer within a 30-day period, prohibit non-dealers from buying or selling more than one handgun in a 30-day period (exchanges of one handgun for another handgun were exempt), eliminate the federal law that allows individuals to make occasional firearm sales to improve their collections without first obtaining an FFL, impose a penalty of 10 years imprisonment for violations (the same as for possession of firearms by felons, knowingly providing a firearm to a prohibited person, possessing a firearm or ammunition knowing that it has been stolen, and similar offenses), extend from 20 business days to 35 calendar days the period of time that may elapse before law enforcement officials had to destroy records pertaining to the application a law-abiding citizen made to buy a handgun under the Brady Act before Instant Check, and permit the Instant Check system to retain records of a firearm purchase for 35 calendar days after the purchase has been approved.

Nationwide, violent crime began declining in 1992 and has continued to decline, as the number of privately owned guns continues to increase. 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. Later, President Clinton credited the decline to the Brady Act and federal "assault weapons" laws, both of which did not take effect until 1994. Anti-gun activits noted that the homicide rate in Washington, D.C., across the Potomac River from Virginia and its one-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%). Further, while the 1968 GCA prohibited interstate firearm sales and D.C.`s 1975 handgun law prohibited handgun purchases altogether, 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%. D.C. criminals obviously ignored those laws, just as they ignore Virginia`s law today.

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 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. In South Africa, the Democratic Party`s draft policy proposed limiting individuals to one gun for self-defence and four guns for sport. The proposal was withdrawn in March 2000, to minimize opposition to the Party`s other gun proposals.

4. 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.

5. In 1994, Wilder attempted a run, as an independent candidate, for the U.S. Senate, but threw in the towel when polls idicated little support for his candidacy among Virginia voters.

6. 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.

7. Jim Stewart, Andrew Alexander, "Assault Weapons Muscle In On the Front Lines of Crime," Cox Washington Bureau, 5/ 21/89.

8. 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)

9. James D. Wright and Peter H. Rossi, Armed and Considered Dangerous: A Survey of Felons and Their Firearms, N.Y.: Aldine de Gruyter, 1986.

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