Beyond the Brady Bill

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Up to a point, the bumper stickers are right. Guns don't kill people. People kill people. But the slogans stop short of the obvious question. Without easy access to guns of all kinds, could Americans go on killing one another at anything like the present rate? When the noise of gunfire stopped on the Long Island Rail Road last week, it was the sound of that question that rose in its place. It brought other pressing questions with it. How far do we go? What formula can rein in guns while permitting their legitimate use? And how much will gun control reduce the killing?

Washington was full of ideas. FBI Director Louis Freeh proposed a complete ban on assault weapons. A group of mayors presented the White House with an anticrime plan that called for gun registration and an assault-weapon ban. New Jersey Senator Bill Bradley suggested a 30% sales tax on handguns, assault weapons and ammunition. But even as the President chimed in, he had a word of caution: "We have to figure out exactly what to do and in what order."

By week's end Bill Clinton, who had been supportive but wary about gun control, made his first choice. One day after directing the Justice Department to examine the possibility of a national registration and licensing system for handgun owners, he told Attorney General Janet Reno to draw up a detailed plan. One likely model is the method for licensing drivers, in which states operate a system with federal standards. "I think it should be at least as hard to get a license to possess a gun," said Reno, "as it is to drive an automobile." It's a good deal harder than that in some other democratic nations. Even if no single factor explains why the U.S. had to tolerate 10,567 handgun murders in 1990 while there were just 22 in Britain and 10 in Australia, strict gun control in both countries would seem to be part of the reason. Britain forbids handguns to most people who are not members of gun clubs; members must store their weapons at the club. Australian handgun owners must undergo a background check before getting a license, which is granted mostly to business owners or gun clubs for target shooting. Gun deaths have gone down in Canada since tight controls were put in force in 1978.

Societies being the complex organisms they are, however, it's never possible to know whether controls that succeed in one place would work as well in another. How much of Japan's low murder rate from handguns -- just 87 last year in a nation with almost half the U.S. population -- is owing to its almost complete prohibition of handguns, and how much to its famously cohesive and cooperative culture? Britain's relative peace is partly due to the fact that British criminals "feel they should be playing within a set of rules," insists David Kopel, an expert on gun control at the Cato Institute in Washington.

The U.S is still a long way from knowing what rules would work in a nation proud of its reputation for rugged individualism. That's because rigorous foreign gun control has no equivalent in the sprawling U.S., where there are numerous state and local regulations but few far-reaching federal laws. The latest, the Brady Bill, is likely to be more notable as a psychological breakthrough than for its impact on gun crime. Studies in the 25 states that already have a waiting period show that between 1% and 2% of prospective buyers are turned away. Under a nationwide system they would be prevented from making the buy in another state with no waiting period. But few criminals get their guns from ordinary shops. All over America, illicit gunrunners supply the streets. As he fills out the forms to buy a Beretta at the Maryland Small Arms Range in Upper Marlboro, customer Gary Roland complains that black-market buyers have a network all their own. "It's easier to get a firearm delivered in the Washington area than it is to get a pizza."

A 1991 Justice Department survey of state-prison inmates found that just 27% had purchased their handguns legally. The rest got them from family or friends, bought them on the black market or stole them. The Brady law would have done nothing to stop them or even some of the inmates who bought their guns legally, if, like the Long Island Rail Road gunner, they had no prior record of arrests or mental illness.

America has been so lax about firearms that even the most basic facts about gun violence are hard to pin down, which leads to uncertainty in making effective policy. A major statistical source is the FBI's yearly Uniform Crime Report. Though it breaks down deaths into three categories -- by handguns, rifles and shotguns -- it says nothing about how many people are killed by imported guns or "Saturday-night specials," or how many died while resisting a stickup. To clarify the picture, Colorado Representative Patricia Schroeder is sponsoring a bill to establish a national firearm-fatality reporting system. Comparable to the system that tracks motor-vehicle deaths -- and which helps lawmakers tailor car and highway safety laws to real perils of the road -- it would identify gun victims and shooting incidents in greater detail.

Representative Charles Schumer isn't waiting for the information to come online. "We do not have to live with this insanity," the New York Democrat said last week as he unveiled the gun-control package he plans to submit to Congress in January. The bill, which has the backing of Sarah Brady's Handgun Control Inc., would require all handgun buyers to be licensed and to possess a renewable national handgun card, which would be issued only after a thorough background check. To put a squeeze on gunrunners, it would limit purchases to one a month. To discourage illicit resales, it would require that all handgun transfers be registered with the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms, which lightly oversees the gun trade.

With the Brady Bill soon to be law, the next major gun-control battle is likely to be over the rules for licensing gun dealers, which Schumer's bill would tighten. In August, President Clinton called for a review of these lax federal procedures, which currently provide a one-year dealer's license for a $10 fee -- going to $200 under the Brady Bill -- to anyone over 21 who has a fixed address and no criminal record. That entitles the holder to order an unlimited number of guns from wholesalers. Today there are more than 287,000 federally licensed dealers in the U.S., nearly three-fourths of them "kitchen-table operators" who work from home. Though gun dealers are responsible for keeping sales records and running checks on potential buyers, small-timers who operate out of car trunks have few incentives to do either. And among them are rogue dealers who sell guns by the thousands to drug gangs and other criminals.

Since the firearms bureau has just 225 inspectors, federal authorities hope that measures like those in the Schumer bill will reduce the number of marginal operators. Some states are moving on their own. In March the Alabama revenue department obtained a list of over 6,500 federally licensed gun dealers in the state. When they did a search of the names, they found that only 2,450 of them were licensed by the state. By May they had tracked down 3,000 of the others and informed them that they would have to pay past license fees and fines. Nearly a third decided to quit the gun business. "Quite a few individuals who were operating out of their houses selling guns to juveniles or guns that ended up on the streets of places like Detroit have decided not to sell firearms because of this," says Dwight Pridgen, chief of Alabama's natural resources and license tax division. "The sad thing is that we found at least one circuit judge and a few state legislators who were dealing guns on the side."

( Law-enforcement officials would also like more restrictions on semiautomatic assault weapons like the TEC-9 and the MAC-10. Though inaccurate, those guns are also cheap, easy to conceal and convertible to fully automatic operation. Last month the Senate unexpectedly adopted Diane Feinstein's assault-weapons amendment to the crime bill. It would ban the production, sale or possession of 19 models -- if it isn't squeezed out of the joint House-Senate version of the bill. Though the White House has pledged to press for legislation banning the manufacture of semiautomatic pistols like the one used by the Long Island Rail Road gunman, it has not drawn up legislation. Despite his words last week, the President is in no hurry to add another political battle to the ones pending on health-care and welfare reform.

Clinton could act more easily against foreign-made assault weapons. In July, after a deranged California man used three 9-mm semiautomatic weapons made in China to kill eight people in a San Francisco law firm, the President suspended imports of semiautomatic assault pistols. By law, he could ban the imports entirely, as George Bush did with larger assault rifles after another California man used one to spray a schoolyard in 1989. In spite of these measures, law-enforcement authorities report a sizable increase in imported firearms recently, especially from China and former Soviet bloc nations seeking to keep their defense industry at work by churning out small arms. "They bring in hard currency, and we're probably the only country in the world that has a large civilian market in handguns," says firearms-bureau spokesman Jack Killorin.

As always, talk about gun control in any form is enough to make the N.R.A. load its ammunition. "They can talk taxes and gun bans all day, but it won't get us further down the road to stopping violent crime," complains N.R.A. executive vice president Wayne LaPierre. "I say, go ahead, pass your taxes, pass more gun bans, and we'll see you at the polls in '94." But even some less biased observers wonder whether most kinds of gun control may not do more harm than good. Gary Kleck, a professor at Florida State University, is author of Point Blank: Guns and Violence in America and a onetime supporter of broad gun control who lost the faith. His study of 4,798 homes across the nation convinced him that guns prevented more crimes than they furthered. "Since the majority of people who own handguns are responsible, law-abiding citizens," says Kleck, "you end up regulating those people instead of the small percentage of people who commit most crimes."

Though the N.R.A. says its resistance to gun control is just an assertion of something that the Constitution already forbids, judges have never read the Second Amendment to prohibit most gun control. "The Second Amendment is about the right of a state to have an organized militia, in order to protect the states from being completely overrun by the Federal Government," says Harvard law professor Laurence Tribe. In the early 1980s, when gun owners brought a court challenge to the handgun ban adopted in Morton Grove, Illinois, lower courts rejected its argument. The Supreme Court refused to hear the case. The ban stands.

Sanford Levinson, a professor at the University of Texas in Austin, believes the Constitution was indeed intended to protect some personal ownership of firearms, if only because the framers distrusted authority. "The Bill of Rights was basically written by people who had overthrown a government 13 years before," he notes. "They had no great confidence that the new Federal Government would turn out acceptably." But even he admits that "courts are likely to rule that Congress can do almost anything short of an outright prohibition of owning guns."

Outright prohibition -- at least of handguns -- is exactly what some people have in mind. Rhode Island Senator John Chafee has twice introduced a bill to ban their sale, manufacture and possession. Connecticut Governor Lowell Weicker plans to introduce a bill in February making it a crime for most people to be caught outside their home or business with a concealed weapon. Weicker says he intends for the law to lay the groundwork for an eventual ban on handguns in his state -- though as a lame-duck Governor he would be leaving the job of getting one as a tricky legacy to his successor. "I don't see any reason at all why anyone should have a handgun," he says.

A nationwide ban would still leave 67 million handguns in circulation. How hard it would be to reclaim many of those is evident from the few places already trying to spoon them up through gun buybacks or givebacks. Operation Cease-fire in Denver encourages people to turn in guns to the police, no questions asked, for tickets to Nuggets, Broncos and Rockies games or tickets to the Museum of Natural History. But buybacks tend to run out of steam and over budget. Minnesota's Hennepin County, which offered $50 a gun, spent more than $300,000 last year to collect 6,100 firearms. Even at that price, buybacks don't offer much incentive for criminals whose guns are more valuable as tools of the trade.

If a handgun ban is the atomic weapon of gun control, it also inspires the same reluctance to use it; for most Americans, it seems too radical a step. Even Handgun Control Inc. shies away from the idea, perhaps because that kind of policy would make it easier for the N.R.A. to tag it as extreme. The future of gun control is still likely to be a process of incremental measures. Feinstein's amendment on assault guns, for instance, would prohibit the 15- bullet clip that the Long Island Rail Road killer used, which allowed him to fire two long barrages before he was stopped. But even her proposal would permit clips of 10 cartridges or less. Would a measure so limited have mattered in last week's attack? Only to the last few people who were hit.