Limiting Gun Sales

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Federal law requires FFLs to report multiple firearms sales to BATF. A

few states, including Virginia, Maryland, and California, have passed laws

that limit the number of guns that an individual may legally purchase from

FFLs within some specified time period. Underlying this intervention is the

idea that some individuals make straw purchases in the primary market and

then divert these guns to proscribed persons or others planning to do harm.

Trace data analyses conducted by BATF suggest that handguns that were

first sold as part of a multiple sale are more likely than others to move

rapidly into criminal use (Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms,

2000c). If multiple sales were limited, then the volume of new guns available

to criminals might decline. In the language of supply and demand, this

is a supply-side intervention aimed at raising the price of new guns to

criminals. In principle this sort of intervention holds promise. However, in

order for this intervention to work—in the sense of reducing violence—not

only must the intervention make it more difficult for criminals to get new

guns but also the substitution possibilities must be limited; that is, comparably

harmful guns cannot be available from comparably accessible sources.

In July 1993, Virginia implemented a law limiting handgun purchases

by any individual to no more than one during a 30-day period. Prior to the

passage of this law, Virginia had been one of the leading source states for

guns recovered in northeast cities including New York, Boston, and Washington,

DC (Weil and Knox, 1996). Using firearms trace data, Weil and

Knox (1996) showed that during the first 18 months the law was in effect,

Virginia’s role in supplying guns to New York and Massachusetts was

greatly reduced. For traces initiated in the Northeast, 35 percent of the

firearms acquired before one-gun-a-month implementation took effect and

16 percent purchased after implementation were traced to Virginia dealers

(Weil and Knox, 1996). This study indicates a change in the origin of traced

crime guns following the change in the law. In this sense, the law change

had an effect. However, the law may have been undermined by a substitution

from guns first purchased in Virginia to guns first purchased in other

states.4 An important question not addressed by this study is whether the

4The Virginia legislature may nonetheless have achieved its goal of reducing the role of the

state in the interstate illegal gun trade.

law change affects the ultimate outcome of interest—the quantity of criminal

harm committed with guns—or even the intermediate questions of the

law’s effects on the number of guns purchased or owned.

Screening Gun Buyers

Enacted in 1994, the Brady Handgun Violence Prevention Act required

FFLs to conduct a background check on all handgun buyers and mandated

a one-week waiting period before transferring the gun to the purchaser. A

total of 32 states were required to implement the provisions of the Brady

act. The remaining states5 and the District of Columbia were exempted

because they already required a background check of those buying handguns

from FFLs. In 1998, the background check provisions of the Brady act

were extended to include the sales of long guns and the waiting period

requirement was removed when, as mandated by the initial act, it became

possible for licensed gun sellers to perform instant record checks on prospective

buyers. The policy intent was to make gun purchases more difficult

for prohibited persons, such as convicted felons, drug addicts, persons with

certain diagnosed mental conditions, and persons under the legal age limit

(18 for long rifles and shotguns, 21 for handguns). In 1996, the prospective

purchasers with prior domestic violence convictions were also prohibited

from purchasing firearms from FFLs.

Theoretically, by raising the cost of acquisition, this procedure reduces

the supply of guns to would-be assailants and to some persons who might

commit suicide. Several BJS studies have demonstrated that Brady background

checks have created obstacles for prohibited persons who attempt

to purchase a gun through retail outlets (Bureau of Justice Statistics, 1999,

2002). The Bureau of Justice Statistics (2002) reported that, from the inception

of the Brady act on March 1, 1994, through December 31, 2001,

nearly 38 million applications for firearms transfers were subject to background

checks and some 840,000 (2.2 percent) applications were rejected.

In 2001, 66,000 firearms purchase applications were rejected out of about

2.8 million applications (Bureau of Justice Statistics, 2002). Prospective

purchasers were rejected because the applicant had a felony conviction or

indictment (58 percent), domestic violence misdemeanor conviction or restraining

order (14 percent), state law prohibition (7 percent), was a fugitive

from justice (6 percent), or some other disqualification, such as having

a drug addiction, documented mental illness, or a dishonorable discharge

(16 percent) (Bureau of Justice Statistics, 2002).

5The 19 remaining states include: California, Connecticut, Delaware, Florida, Illinois, Indiana,

Iowa, Maryland, Massachusetts, Missouri, Nevada, New Jersey, New York, Ohio, Oklahoma,

Oregon, South Carolina, South Dakota, and Virginia.

These figures suggest the possibility that the Brady act might be effective

in screening prohibited purchasers from making gun purchases from

FFLs. Based on descriptive studies revealing heightened risks of subsequent

gun offending, some researchers suggest extending the provisions of the

Brady act to a wider range of at-risk individuals, such as persons with prior

felony arrests (Wright et al., 1999) and misdemeanor convictions

(Wintemute et al., 1998). Wright et al. (1999) compared the gun arrest

rates of two groups in California. The first consisted of persons who were

denied purchases because they had been convicted of a felony in 1977. The

second was purchasers who had a prior felony arrest in 1977 but no conviction.

Even though the former group would reasonably be labeled as higher

risk, they showed lower arrest rates over the three years following purchase

or attempt to purchase. It is important to recognize that the group of

convicted felons who attempt to purchase through legal channels may be

systematically lower risk than the entire felony population, precisely because

they did attempt to use the prohibited legitimate market; the finding

is suggestive rather than conclusive

Wintemute et al. (1998) also recognize that extending the provisions of

the Brady act would greatly complicate the screening process. Moreover,

while this policy seems to prevent prohibited persons from making gun

purchases in the primary market, the question remains what, if any, effect it

has on purchases in the secondary market, on gun crimes, and on suicide.

Using a differences-in-differences research design and multivariate statistics

to control for state and year effects, population age, race, poverty

and income levels, urban residence, and alcohol consumption, Ludwig and

Cook (2000) compared firearm homicide and suicide rates and the proportion

of homicides and suicides resulting from firearms in the 32 states

affected by Brady act requirements (the treatment group) compared with

the 19 states and the District of Columbia (the control group) that had

equivalent legislation already in place. Ludwig and Cook (2000) found no

significant differences in homicide and suicide rates between the treatment

and control groups, although they did find a reduction in gun suicides

among persons age 55 and older in the treatment states. This reduction was

greater in the treatment states that had instituted both waiting periods and

background checks relative to treatment states that only changed background

check requirements. The authors suggest that the effectiveness of

the Brady act in reducing homicides and most suicides was undermined by

prohibited purchasers shifting from the primary market to the largely unregulated

secondary market.

While the Brady act had no direct effect on homicide rates, it is possible

that it had an indirect effect, by reducing interstate gun trafficking

and hence gun violence in the control states that already had similar laws.

Cook and Braga (2001) document the fact that criminals in Chicago (a

high control jurisdiction) were being supplied to a large extent by illegal

gun trafficking from south central states, in particular Mississippi, and

that a modest increase in regulation—imposed by the Brady act—shut

down that pipeline. However, this large change in trafficking channels did

not have any apparent effect in gun availability for violent acts in Chicago,

as the percentage of homicides with guns did not drop after 1994 (Cook

and Braga, 2001). Moreover, the authors found that the percentage of

crime handguns first purchased in Illinois increased after the implementation

of the Brady act, suggesting substitution from out-of-state FFLs to instate

FFLs once the advantage of purchasing guns outside Illinois had been