Consider the following statement:
Senator, there needs to be a change in the culture of prosecution at the entire federal level. It’s a national disgrace. The fact is, we could dramatically cut crime in this country with guns and save lives all over this country if we would start enforcing the 9,000 federal laws we have on the books.
That was National Rifle Association Chief Executive Wayne LaPierre on January 30, 2013, testifying before the Senate Judiciary Committee against universal background checks. The figure used by LaPierre is mere hyperbole – indeed, opponents of gun control often claim that there are 20,000 gun laws on the books, not just 9,000. And as is usually the case with hyperbolic statements, it is not relevant to anything. We need to be asking not “how many” gun laws, however defined, do we have. The total number of regulations tells us absolutely nothing about the overall stringency of gun control.
This issue aside, the crux of LaPierre’s statement reflects a familiar trope that the NRA and opponents of federal gun laws have been using for nearly five decades: that all we need is better enforcement of our current federal laws. Why should we institute new gun laws, they argue, if we aren’t even adequately enforcing the laws that are already on the books?
This has been a core argument of the gun lobby for years in its fight against sensible restrictions on guns. The clear implication being that the federal government already has at its disposal an adequate regulatory regime to protect Americans from gun violence and make it harder for high risk people to gain access to guns. By any reasonable measure, however, existing federal gun laws are inadequate in achieving their stated goal. The problem is not the lack of enforcement at the federal level but the lack of nationally uniform and effective laws.
There are two major statutes regulating the commerce in and possession of firearms at the federal level: the National Firearms Act of 1934 and the Gun Control Act of 1968.
The National Firearms Act of 1934 (NFA) was originally designed to curtail, if not prohibit, transactions of firearms perceived to be especially lethal or to be the chosen weapons of “gangsters” (e.g. machine guns and short-barreled long guns). The NFA imposes a $200 manufacturing tax and a $200 transfer tax each time a firearm is transferred from an unlicensed individual, and it compels the disclosure of the production and distribution system from manufacturer to buyer. At the time, the $200 making and transfer taxes on most NFA firearms were considered quite severe and adequate to discourage or eliminate transactions in these firearms. The $200 tax, however, has not changed since 1934.
To deal in NFA firearms, a person is required to (1) be a federally licensed gun dealer under the Gun Control Act of 1968 (see below) and (2) be a special occupation taxpayer (SOT) under the NFA. It is a felony to receive, possess, or transfer an unregistered NFA firearm, punishable by a fine of up to $250,000, imprisonment for up to 10 years, and forfeiture of any vessel, vehicle, or aircraft used to conceal or convey the firearm.
The Gun Control Act of 1968 (GCA) was designed to assist federal, state and local law enforcement in the ongoing effort to reduce crime and violence, and contains the principal federal restrictions on domestic commerce in firearms and ammunition. Under the CGA, all persons manufacturing, importing, or selling firearms as a business must be federally licensed. In addition, the CGA contains numerous prohibitions on the sale and transfer of firearms – the law prohibits the interstate mail-order sale of all firearms, prohibits interstate sale of handguns generally, sets forth categories of person to whom firearms or ammunition may not be sold, authorizes the Attorney General to prohibit the importation of “non-sporting” firearms, requires that gun dealers maintain records of all commercial gun sales, and establishes special penalties for the use of a firearm in the perpetration of a federal drug trafficking offense or crime of violence. In addition, as amended by the Brady Handgun Violence Prevention Act, the CGA requires background checks be completed for all unlicensed persons seeking to obtain firearms from federal firearms licensees.
The NFA and CGA are not the only federal statutes addressing firearms, but together, they form the core of the federal regulatory regime in the United States. These laws serve as the minimum standard in the United States, and state law cannot preempt federal law.
But over the years, the NRA and other pro-gun lobbyists have worked to steadily weaken existing gun laws and the federal agency charged with enforcing them. The NRA, for example, has been actively lobbying to eliminate “gun-free zones,” to allow students and faculty to carry concealed weapons on the campuses of state colleges and universities, and to expand the right to carry loaded guns into bars and restaurants. And records from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) show the agency had 1,622 agents and 826 industry investigators in 1973 compared with 2,442 agents and 793 investigators in 2012. Meanwhile, the number of firearms in the U.S. has only grown.
What remains is the lowest common denominator of federal firearm regulation and a weak federal agency charged with their enforcement, adding up to a scenario in which gun laws in the United States vary wildly from state to state and are a patchwork of strict to lax. Depending on the state, a would-be gun-buyer can trade cash for guns over a card table at a flea market, or be subjected to a background check and a seven-day waiting period. Savvy gun buyers exploit the differences in state laws, forge documents, set up straw purchasers and circumvent the law in countless other creative and malicious ways.
The United States’ approach to gun violence can, and must, be improved through the passage of sensible gun regulations. Like requiring universal background checks, prohibiting terrorist watch list members from acquiring guns, mandating that gun-owners inform the police when their gun is stolen, and restricting concealed carry permits to individuals who have completed a safety training course and refusing to give such permits to perpetrators of violent misdemeanors or individuals arrested for domestic violence. This can all be achieved without infringing upon Americans’ Second Amendment right to keep and bear arms. This is not about taking away your guns.
America has a problem with gun violence. Since 1968, over one million people have been killed with guns in the United States. The firearm homicide rate is about 20 times higher in the United States than in 22 other populous high-income countries combined, despite similar non-lethal crime and violence rates. In recent years, roughly 80 percent of all firearm deaths worldwide occurred in the United States. Further, research shows that keeping a firearm at home increases the risk of homicide by a factor of three, and that more guns lead to more suicides.
As New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg stressed in 2012, “We are the only industrialized county that has this problem. In the whole world, the only one.”
We shouldn’t have to settle for that.
**Featured Image Credit: Elvert Barnes on Flickr.