Shooting Blanks

Why gun control misses the target


| September-October 2008


In recent election cycles, the greatest feat of liberal tightrope walking has occurred not over abortion, but over gun safety. Candidates talk about renewing the assault weapons ban, then mumble something about the rights of hunters. But there is a better way to take on this issue—one that would yield real reductions in violence without adversely affecting law-abiding gun owners.

There are 280 million firearms in private hands in America, and in 2006 there were almost 400,000 gun crimes. That means that 279,600,000 guns did nothing wrong. We also know from a 2000 report by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms (ATF) that in 89 percent of crimes, the person using the gun was not the person who originally bought it. So nine out of ten crime guns changed hands between the first purchase (which was probably legal) and the last purchase (which was certainly illegal).

This indicates that the root of America’s gun crime problem is not the number of guns in the hands of Americans, but an extensive web of gun trafficking operations that funnel firearms to criminals. In some cases, the trafficking operations cover long distances. According to the ATF’s 2007 Firearms Trace Data Report, more than a third of all crime guns recovered and successfully traced in New Jersey and New York came from Virginia, Georgia, Florida, and the Carolinas.

What we need, then, is a new strategy to reduce gun violence: Don’t restrict gun rights, but instead deepen the sense of gun ownership.

The first step is to make gun trafficking a federal crime, not a term of art. There is only one statute on the federal books that deals even indirectly with gun trafficking—a vague, loophole-ridden law that allows only federally licensed gun stores “to engage in the business” of dealing in firearms.

Since federal law allows any individual to sell his or her own firearms to anyone else, the “engaged in the business” bar is easily surmountable. And since any individual may also sell firearms without performing a background check, asking for identification, or keeping any sort of record, the requirement that individuals not knowingly sell to criminals is merely a suggestion. That is why federal prosecutors in 29 states filed five or fewer cases related to trafficking behavior over a recent three-year period.

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