Journal Issue: Children, Youth, and Gun Violence Volume 12 Number 2 Summer/Fall 2002
Strategies to Reform the Gun Markets and Decrease Youth Access to Guns (2/2)
Screening Prospective Buyers and Preventing High-Risk Purchases
Federal law has long prohibited children, felons, persons under felony indictment, controlled substance users, and certain others from possessing firearms.41 Background checks and waiting periods can help ensure that these prohibited persons do not purchase guns from licensed firearm dealers.
In 1994, Congress enacted the Brady Handgun Violence Prevention Act, which required a five-day waiting period prior to handgun purchase, and initially also required state or local law enforcement to conduct a criminal record background check. States with preexisting (and generally more restrictive) programs, known as Brady alternative states, continued to operate as they had before.
Over the Brady Act's first five years, all states together screened a total of 12.7 million applications to purchase guns and issued 312,000 denials.42 In 1999, when checks on prospective purchasers of rifles and shotguns were added, some 204,000 persons—2.4% of those who applied—were denied the purchase.43 Approximately 70% of denials are for felony convictions or indictments, 10% are for domestic violence misdemeanor convictions, 3% are for domestic violence restraining orders, and the remainder are for other reasons.
In 1998, both the waiting period and the background check were replaced by the National Instant Criminal Background Check System (NICS), administered by the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI). During NICS' first year of operation, nearly 90% of background checks were completed within two hours of application; 72% were completed within 30 seconds. Checks that are complicated by missing or incomplete data can take several days. The law, however, allows retailers to release guns to purchasers after three business days, whether or not the background checks are completed. By the end of 1999, some 3,353 prohibited persons, most of them felons, had acquired firearms in this manner; just 442 had surrendered their guns. This problem would largely be eliminated if the waiting period for firearm purchases were lengthened for ambiguous cases.44,45
Because many states do not operate under the Brady system, procedures for buying guns vary widely from state to state. Thirteen states have waiting periods for handgun purchase, and five have waiting periods for rifle or shotgun purchase. As of June 1999, waiting periods for handgun purchase ranged from as little as 2 days in Alabama, South Dakota, and Wisconsin, to 14 days in Connecticut and Hawaii. The waiting period in New York can be as long as 180 days if needed. In 24 states, gun retailers contact the FBI directly for all background checks. In 15 states, the state conducts all background checks to determine whether the gun sale would violate either state or federal law. In the remaining 11 states, a state or local agency conducts background checks on handgun purchases, and the FBI conducts checks on rifle or shotgun purchases. Altogether, more than 3,000 federal, state, and local agencies conduct background checks.34
Screening prospective gun buyers and denying purchases by those who are at risk for future criminal activity has become a widely accepted violence prevention policy. Denial reduces risk for later criminal activity among those whose purchases are denied. In a California study, felons whose handgun purchases were denied were compared with handgun buyers who had felony arrests but no convictions.46 The felony arrestees—whose purchases were approved—were 21% more likely to be charged with a new gun offense, and 24% more likely to be charged with a new violent offense, than were the felons.
Many violence prevention advocates have argued that denying a gun purchase based on a prior felony conviction or indictment does not go far enough. The 1997 federal Omnibus Consolidated Appropriations Act banned the purchase or possession of guns by persons convicted of a misdemeanor domestic violence offense.47 Persons subject to active domestic violence restraining orders have been prohibited from purchasing or possessing handguns since 1994. Some 17 states and the District of Columbia now deny guns to persons convicted of selected misdemeanors, typically crimes involving violence, alcohol, or drugs. New Jersey's statute is the most comprehensive, prohibiting the purchase of guns by "any person who has been convicted of a crime."48
Limiting Gun Sales
Evidence that multiple-purchase guns are likely to be trafficked and used in crime has led Virginia, Maryland, and California to outlaw such purchases. Virginia's law, effective in July 1993, limited firearm purchases by persons other than retailers to no more than one per month. Prior to that time, Virginia had been a major source state for the Iron Pipeline, responsible for 35% of crime guns recovered in New England. But Virginia accounted for just 16% of New England crime guns that were purchased after the new law took effect.49 An evaluation of California's law is being conducted by the author and colleagues.
Regulating the Secondary Gun Market
Regulating the secondary gun market—sales between private parties—is another way to reduce the number of guns sold to minors. By 1999, 14 states regulated private sales, requiring that purchasers of guns sold by private parties obtain a permit or undergo a background check at the premises of a licensed retailer or law enforcement agency. Of these 14 states, 6 regulate all private sales of firearms, 1 regulates private sales of handguns and assault weapons, and 7 regulate handgun sales only. In November 2000, Colorado and Oregon adopted statutes regulating private sales of firearms at gun shows but not elsewhere.34
California and Maryland are the only states with statutes that specifically regulate gun shows. California requires a show organizer to obtain a Certificate of Eligibility from the Department of Justice and to provide local law enforcement with a list of all sellers at the show. Maryland requires unlicensed sellers at gun shows to obtain temporary transfer permits and comply with the same restrictions imposed on licensed retailers.
Registering Guns and Licensing Owners
Requiring all gun owners to register their firearms and obtain licenses for their use also could cut down on the number of guns illegally transferred to young people. Proponents of this idea argue that a gun confiscated from a young person could be traced to its registered owner, who could then be held liable for transferring it illegally.
A new study suggests that licensing and registration laws may help to disrupt the illegal gun market. Researchers at The Johns Hopkins University examined ATF gun tracing data for cities in states that had both licensing and registration statutes, had one or the other, or had neither.
Just 33% of crime guns recovered in cities subject to both licensing and registration laws were originally purchased from in-state gun retailers. By contrast, 72% of crime guns were of in-state origin when only one of these laws was in force; 84% of crime guns came from within the state when neither licensing nor registration statutes had been enacted.50
Banning Weapons of Choice
Reducing the availability of poorly made, inexpensive Saturday night special handguns is particularly important for preventing gun violence among children and youth, as the guns' low cost makes them more accessible to young persons. Several states have banned the sale of these types of guns.
In 1989, Maryland created a Handgun Roster Board to develop a list of handguns that could be manufactured or sold legally in the state. A preliminary evaluation of the impact of the Maryland law found that nonapproved guns accounted for a progressively smaller percentage of crime guns confiscated by law enforcement agencies.51 The ban appears to have had a beneficial effect on crime, producing a 9% decrease in Maryland's homicide rate from what would otherwise have been expected.52
In California, more than 40 cities and counties sought to eliminate Saturday night specials by outlawing the manufacture and sale of guns that failed to meet a set of design and materials criteria. Intermediate results varied, apparently as a result of variable monitoring and enforcement.53 California has since adopted a rigorous set of design and performance standards for all handguns manufactured or sold in the state that took effect on January 1, 2001. It is too soon to know whether the law will reduce gun violence rates.
The best available evidence suggests that comprehensive bans on handguns can be effective as well. In Washington, D.C., such a ban was enacted in the mid-1970s and was associated with a 25% decrease in gun homicide. Washington, D.C., did not experience a comparable decrease (or compensatory increase) in nongun homicide, and no changes in homicide rates were seen in neighboring Maryland or Virginia.54