Closing Gun Control Loopholes

By Weil, Douglas S. | National Forum, Fall 2000 | Go to article overview

Closing Gun Control Loopholes

Weil, Douglas S., National Forum

By the time this article is published, the citizens of two states, Oregon and Colorado, are likely to have followed Florida's lead in voting to "close the gun show loophole" -- a gap in the Brady law that allows the ownership of firearms to change hands without a background check. Recent opinion polls indicate that public support for closing the loophole exceeds 70 percent in both states. But why does it matter which way the votes go? According to opponents of gun control, criminals do not obey gun laws anyway.

The answer of course is that criminals and other individuals prohibited by law from possessing firearms take advantage of loopholes in the law to obtain guns and to do so anonymously. As a result, it is easy for an individual to break the link between himself and his gun, removing an important barrier to the criminal use of firearms. This circumstance distinguishes the United States from other industrialized countries, most of which regulate firearms by licensing gun owners and registering guns.


In the United States, few restrictions exist on gun ownership and gun carrying. Though a small number of cities, including Chicago and the District of Columbia, have essentially banned possession of handguns within their borders, the vast majority of Americans can buy a gun if:

* They are at least twenty-one years old;

* Are not being prosecuted for, or have not been convicted of, a felony crime;

* Have not been dishonorably discharged from the military or involuntarily committed to a mental health institution; and,

* Are not subject to a domestic violence restraining order.

In fact, anyone entitled to own a gun can buy as many guns as he or she can afford Furthermore, as long as an individual does not live in one of four states that limit handgun purchases to one handgun per month, here is no limit on the number of guns a person can buy as part of a single transaction. Data from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms (ATE) indicates that as many as 150 Saturday Night Specials (SNS) have been purchased by a single individual as part of one transaction. SNSs are the small, inexpensive handguns that have been disproportionately traced in connection with criminal investigations. What's more, the person who purchased the guns is essentially free to sell one or more of them to yet another individual, free of the constraint of a background check.

The way guns sales are regulated in the United States depends largely on whether or not the transaction occurs in the retail market (that is, guns sold by federally licensed firearms dealers -- "FFLs") or in the private/secondary market (those transactions in which an FFL is not involved). Specifically, background checks are mandatory for virtually all retail transactions but rarely required for private gun transfers. FFLs are required to maintain a record indicating to whom each gun was sold and when. They also are required to provide the ATF with a record of all multiple sales including makes, models, serial numbers, and identity of the purchaser. There are essentially no recordkeeping requirements when a non-licensee sells a gun. In other words, what is known about the transfer of a firearm from one individual to another depends not on the fact that the gun was sold -- or even to whom it was sold -- but upon who sold it.

Consequently, it is relatively easy for a prohibited purchaser to buy a gun in the secondary market without revealing disqualifying information from his or her background that would cause the transaction to be terminated. Furthermore, if a gun purchased from a non-licensed individual is later recovered as part of a criminal investigation, the fact that it is unlikely that there would be a record of the transactions makes the gun virtually impossible to trace back to its most recent owner. According to a study released in the Journal of the American Medical Association, as many as 40 percent of all gun sales are estimated to take place in the secondary market, outside the scope of reach of most firearms regulations -- a circumstance inconsistent with efforts to bring the rate of criminal gun violence down to a level approaching that of other industrialized nations. …

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