During April 2010, television ads paid for by New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s gun control advocacy group, Mayors Against Illegal Guns (MAIG), hit the airwaves in selected areas. The ads say, “The Columbine school massacre. The killers got their guns because of a gap in the law, called the ‘gun show loophole’. . . . Close the ‘gun show loophole.’”The claim, and the implication that the Columbine crime would have been prevented if the so-called “loophole” had already been “closed,” are absolutely false. Some clarification of the Bloomberg-MAIG terminology and soundbite is in order:
- By “gap” and “loophole,” Bloomberg and MAIG mean that while federal law requires licensed firearms dealers to screen prospective purchasers of firearms through the National Instant Criminal Background Check System (NICS), it does not require persons who aren’t licensed dealers to use NICS. (NICS, established in 1998, before the Columbine crime, checks prospective purchasers of firearms against a national database of persons who are prohibited from possessing firearms, such as felons, fugitives and illegal aliens.)
- By “close the gun show loophole,” Bloomberg and MAIG mean that they want all sales of firearms at gun shows to be screened through NICS.
The Bloomberg-MAIG theory is flawed, because the woman who—as a straw purchaser for the Columbine criminals—bought three of their four firearms at a gun show, wasn’t prohibited from possessing firearms and therefore would have passed a NICS check if she had bought the firearms from a licensed dealer. And, contrary to what MAIG claims, the Columbine criminals didn’t acquire their fourth firearm from a gun show.1 While Bloomberg and MAIG attribute the Columbine crime to the lack of a gun control law which, as noted, would have been irrelevant to the crime, the recommendations of the Colorado Governor’s Columbine Review Commission Report focused on “improving law enforcement and rescue responses” and “better early detection and safety measures in our schools.”
Moreover, Bloomberg and MAIG aren’t telling the whole story about the bills they support to “close the gun show loophole”—H.R. 2324 (Rep. Michael Castle, R-Del.) and S. 843 (Sen. Frank Lautenberg, D-N.J.).2 Both bills contain provisions that would drive gun shows out of business:
- H.R. 2324 would impose a “vendor” requirement with which no one could comply. Both bills define “vendor” to include any gun show customer who brings a firearm to a show—even to sell it to a dealer—or who doesn’t bring a firearm, but who mentions to someone at a show that he might be interested in selling a firearm. H.R. 2324 would require show operators to notify the Attorney General, in writing, no later than 30 days in advance of the show, of the name of every “vendor.” Of course, there is no way that a show promoter can know 30 days (or 30 seconds) in advance who is going to attend a show, who might bring a firearm to sell, or who might talk with someone about selling a firearm.
- Both bills seek to register gun owners. Because of how the bills define “vendor,” a gun show promoter would be forced to have everyone who attends a show sign the ledger. And the bills require that the “vendor” ledgers be available to BATFE inspectors. Many privacy-conscious Americans would refuse to sign a ledger just to walk around a show, and that would reduce gun show attendance.
- Both bills would require registration of gun shows. S. 843 would additionally allow the Attorney General to charge an unspecified fee for registering a gun show. The power to set prohibitively expensive fees is the power to destroy, of course.
- Both bills would authorize the BATFE to conduct warrantless inspections of the required “vendor” (customer) ledger and all records of licensed firearm dealers while dealers are at shows to conduct business. Normally, recordkeeping compliance inspections are conducted at prearranged times, when convenient. The warrantless inspection requirement would allow interruptions of dealers while they’re in the middle of conducting business, which would discourage them from participating in shows.
- Gun shows account for a very small percentage of criminals’ guns. The largest study of the subject ever conducted by the federal government found that only 0.7 percent of prison inmates who had used guns, had obtained their guns from gun shows.3 Another federal study found only 1.7 percent of federal prison inmates obtained their guns from gun shows.4 A earlier study found less than two percent of criminals’ guns came from gun shows.5 An FBI study of criminals who attacked law enforcement officers found “None of the [criminals’] rifles, shotguns, or handguns … were obtained from gun shows or related activities.” Ninety-seven percent of guns in the study were obtained illegally.6
- Under federal law, it is illegal to “engage in the business” of “dealing in firearms” (buying and selling firearms as a regular business with the objective of profit) without a federal license. Violations carry a five year prison sentence and a $250,000 fine.7
- Firearm sales have been increasing and the nation’s murder rate is at a 45-year low.8
1. MAIG incorrectly claims “All four guns used in the Columbine shootings were bought from private sellers at gun shows.” (Press release, April 20, www.mayorsagainstillegalguns.org/html/media-center/pr002-10.shtml.)
2. H.R. 2423 is the “Gun Show Loophole Closing Act of 2009.” S. 843 is the “Gun Show Background Check Act of 2009.” On p. 34 of its “Blueprint” www.mayorsagainstillegalguns.org/downloads/pdf/blueprint_federal_action.pdf, MAIG endorses the bills.
3. Caroline Wolf Harlow, Bureau of Justice Statistics, “Firearm Use by Offenders,” Nov. 2001, p. 6.
4. John Scalia, Bureau of Justice Statistics, Federal Firearm Offenders, 1992-98, June 2000, p. 10.
5. Pamela K. Lattimore, National Institute of Justice, “Homicide in Eight U.S. Cities: Trends, Context and Policy Implications,” Dec. 1997, p. 99.
6. Anthony J. Pinizzotto, “Violent Encounters: A Study of Felonious Assaults on Our Nation’s Law Enforcement Officers,” Aug. 2006, p. 53.
7. 18 USC 922(a)(1)(A), 18 USC 921(a)(21)(C), and 18 USC 924(a)(1).
8. Firearm sales: www.fbi.gov/hq/cjisd/nics/Total%20NICS%20Background%20Checks.pdf. Murder rate: See www.fbi.gov/ucr/cius2008/data/table_04.html for the 2008 murder rate and www.fbi.gov/pressrel/pressrel09/stats_122109.htm indicating a 10 percent decrease during the first half of 2009. See http://bjsdata.ojp.usdoj.gov/dataonline/Search/Crime/State/TrendsInOneVar.cfm for earlier years. Data for 1960-2008 are presented in convenient form on the NRA-ILA website at www.nraila.org/crime/us.xls.