The following research describes a variety of arguments used by opponents of gun control, with the underlying rationale that restrictive firearms legislation fails to stop crime. Citing the ineffectiveness of both state and federal laws–through statistical means mainly–this paper seeks to demonstrate the lack of success gun control has had in reducing crime. A short overview of present federal and state gun laws will be followed by a series of critiques of those laws. Such legislation, from the 1911 New York Sullivan Law to the Gun Control Act of 1968, usually attempts to 1) prohibit the transportation of dangerous weapons across state lines, 2) license gun owners and/or register their firearms, 3) limit the sale and manufacture of firearms, or 4) prevent certain kinds of guns from being owned. Details of studies by both private and public bodies on the effectiveness of these four kinds of gun laws will be given, in addition to the conclusions drawn by the respective investigating agencies.
Any listing of American gun laws must begin with reference to Amendment II to the U.S. Constitution, which states: “A well-regulated militia being necessary to the security of a free state, the right of people to keep and bear arm shall not be infringed.” However, as constitutional authorities point out, the amendment should be considered applicable only to arms openly displayed. “The amendment,” say Harold W. Chase and Craig R. Ducat, “does not cover concealed weapons . . ., Nor will the [Supreme] Court apply it to sawed-off shotguns, being unable to say of its own knowledge that their possession and use furthers in any way the preservation of a ‘well-regulated militia'”(Chase and Ducat, 1973, p. 299).
Hence, the constitutional “right to bear arms” can be considered a starting point for more definitive legislation and not an absolute. Kentucky, Indiana, Arkansas and Georgia were the first states to recognize this fact, enacting laws early in the 19th Cent. that prohibited the carrying of concealed weapons (Shaffer, 1972, p. 549).
The first law requiring a person to got permission from a government authority to possess or buy a weapon was New York states Sullivan Law, enacted in 1911, which is still in force. Regarded as one of the toughest gun control laws in the nation, it requires a license for the purchase of a handgun or other concealable weapon and makes the carrying of firearms without a license a penal offense. Licensees in New York must show “proper cause” for wanting or needing the weapon (Shaffer, 1972, p. 550).
The years immediately following World War I saw a rise in gang warfare in the big cities–and a corresponding interest in federal gun-control. The first gun-control law adopted by Congress, in 1927, provided that pistols and other concealable firearms couldn’t be sent through the mail. But it was still legal to carry them personally or sent by common carrier across state lines (Shaffer, 1972, p. 552).
Not long after an assassination attempt failed against president-elect Franklin D. Roosevelt, during a 20-year period that saw gun deaths rise from 11.6 to 15.4 per 100,000 population, Congress again acted to restrict the availability of lethal weapons. The National Firearms Act of 1934, its passage fought by the National Rifle Association, was directed mainly at the armaments of gangland. “It called for registration and taxation on manufacture, sale or transfer of machine guns, sawed-off shotguns, cut-down rifles, mufflers and silencers” (Shaffer, 1972, pp. 552-553).
A 1938 Federal Firearms Act was the last legislation of significance on gun control to come out of Congress until the passage of the Gun Control Act of 1968. In 1938, manufacturers and importers of firearms and ammunition had to obtain licenses from the Internal Revenue Service. It became illegal for a dealer or manufacturer to ship a firearm to unlicensed firms where state law required licensing. And it was unlawful to knowingly ship firearms or ammunition to anyone convicted of a serious crime or under indictment (Shaffer, 1972, p. 553).
Sentiment for tougher firearms controls, especially laws limiting the purchase and transportation of handguns (the so-called “Saturday night specials”), rose during the 1950s and peaked with the assassination of President John F. Kennedy on November 22, 1963. Thomas J. Dodd, chairman of the Senate Judiciary Subcommittee on Juvenile Delinquency, entered a
bill making it difficult to buy a gun from the fast-growing mail-order gun business. It was a high-power Mannlicher-Carcano rifle, obtained by mail through an ad in the American Rifleman, that Lee Harvey Oswald used in killing Kennedy, in fact, but Dodd’s idea for legislation arose out of concern that juveniles were answering the ads (Bloomgarden, 1975, p. 121). The NRA, now a body of one million persons, lobbied successfully against gun-control in that session, and prevented any important firearms legislation to acme out of Congress until 1968 (Shaffer, 1972, p. 553).
Three laws affecting the shipment, sale and possession of guns were passed in 1968. The first, a gun-control amendment to the Omnibus Control and Safe Streets Act prohibited the interstate shipment of pistols and revolvers to individuals and the over-the-counter purchase of those weapons by persons who lived outside the dealer’s state. Alarmed by the riots of that year, Congress added an amendment to the Civil Rights Act of 1968, “imposing penalties on anyone who manufactures or transports a firearm across state lines purposely for use in civil disorder, and on anyone who instructs another in the use of the weapon for that purpose” (Shaffer, 1972, pp. 553-554).
Public law 90-618, the federal Gun Control Act of 1968, was passed after three months of debate and compromise and remains today as the main piece of gun-control legislation. It modified the earlier Omnibus Act and superseded the 1938 law. In three titles, the Act regulated the transportation, shipment and receipt of firearms and ammunition in interstate and foreign commerce; included destructive devices under the tax and registration provisions of the National Firearms Act; and strengthened restrictions on handguns, requiring the seller to notify, the buyer’s law-enforcement officer (Pro and Con, December 1975, p. 291).
In the preamble to the Gun Control Act of 1968, Congress “hereby declares that the purpose of this title is to provide support to Federal, State and local law enforcement officials in their fight against crime and violence . . . (Gun Control Act, 1968, p. 1.). But close inspection of the record, notably the
FBI’s annual Uniform Crime Reports, indicates that the law–however noble its intentions–has backfired, say the Act’s critics.
In recent years there has been a great increase in the number of such weapons. This has happened in spite of the 1968 Federal Gun-Control Act which was designed–among other things–to cut the flow of cheap, imported handguns. More than one million imports entered the U.S. in the year before the law went into effect. Although the level dropped in the Act’s initial years, Treasury Department figures show imports are now back to earlier levels (U.S. News, February 10, 1975, p. 25).
In the first five years of the Act’s existence, 9.8 million domestic and foreign handguns were manufactured for the U.S. market, as compared to 10.2 million in the decade proceeding the law. Critics point to a gaping loophole in the 1968 law, which allows the assembly in this country of guns from imported parts. In addition, the 1968 law’s provisions curbing the flow of guns from states with weak laws to states with strong ones were found wanting. Franklin E. Zimring, a University of Chicago law professor who analyzed the first five years of the law’s operations, cited a Treasury Department study showing that of some 5,000 illegal handguns seized by police in Now York City in 1973, the majority that could be traced came from six states in the South, where gun laws are weak (U.S. News, February 10, 1975, p. 25).
The premise that licensing and registration of guns (and their owners) would reduce crime also was brought into question by a series of studies by Alan S. Krug, director of research for the National Shooting Sports Foundation Inc. In a widely quoted survey Krug conducted of state law enforcement agencies on firearms registration in 1970, “It was established that during the ten-year period 1959-1968, the tracing of a firearm by serial number contributed to the solution of at least six homicides and 6 robberies n 44 states (Krug, 1970, p. 10).
Typical of the replies from state police agencies were these: (Iowa) “This office has no records whereby the identity of the criminal was made by the tracing of a firearm,” (Maryland) “We have no records of a major crime being solved by tracing of a firearm serial number,” and (Wyoming) “This bureau was established in 1963, and to our knowledge, no criminal cases have been solved by tracing the serial number of a firearm.” Perhaps the most damning statistic, often cited by the NRA in its lobbying efforts, was this:
An examination of New York City Police Department annual reports for the years 1911-1968 failed to disclose a single case of criminal homicide, assault or robbery that had been solved through the tracing of a firearm by serial number. In addition, an extensive search of New York City newspapers for the fifteen-year period 1953-1968 failed to reveal any instance where the tracing of a firearm by serial number had been material to the prosecution of any criminal case (Krug, 1970, p. 10).
Krug also attempted to calculate the cost a national gun registration program would be. Using New York City’s processing fee as a guide, Krug figured a theoretical initial cost of licensing and registering the guns of 40 million firearm owners across the country at $2.9 billion (Krug, 1970, p. 2).
An earlier report by Krug, entitled “The True [sic] Facts on Firearms Legislation: Three Statistical Studies,” called itself the “first comprehensive study on a national basis ever made on the relationship of firearms to crime in the United States” (Krug, “True Facts”, p. 1). Using FBI crime data as the basis for his studies, Krug concluded that 1) Firearms of all types were involved in only 3.4 percent of serious crimes in 1966. 2) “Statistics show that there is no significant difference in crime rates between states that have firearms licensing laws and those that do not.” and 3) In general “as the proportion of the population possessing firearms goes down, crime rates go up. Statistics show that fewer people with guns do not mean less crime” (Krug, “True Facts”, p. 1). Krug, in introducing a statistical analysis of crime rates and firearms ownership before the Congress on January 29, 1968, said, “To date, not a single scientific study has shown a causal relationship between firearms and crime” (Krug, “True Facts,” p. 13).
A comprehensive study of the tie between crime rates and firearms legislation also was conducted by the Wisconsin Legislative Reference Library for the Wisconsin State Legislature in 1960. Its conclusion was similar to Krug’s: “The results of this study indicated that there is no demonstrable correlation between regulations and crime rates” (Krug, “True Facts,” p. 7.).
Robert J. Kukla, a director of the NRA and a former Chicago police consultant, quoted the South Texas Law Journal‘s study entitled “Do Laws Requiring Registration of Privately Owned Firearms Lower Murder Rates?” in his 1973 work Gun Control. Its major conclusions were these:
There is no evidence to indicate that, acting alone, laws requiring the registration of firearms have any effect on the rate at which murders and homicides are committed. It appears that once the homicidal intent is formed the instrument to be used is only incidental (Kukla, 1973, p. 401).
Another, similar study by the California Department of Justice, Bureau of Criminal Statistics, in 1960, came to the same conclusion,, adding, “In the home, at work, at play, in almost any environmental setting a multitude of objects exist providing means for inflicting illegal death (Kukla, 1973, 402).
More recently, crime statistics have been interpreted to show that the 1968 Control Act has failed to stem the rising tide of serious crime in the early-1970s. Such was the contention of James A. McClure, a Republican senator from Idaho, who testified on February 27, 1975 to a House committee: “Existing gun laws–even the most stringent–have failed to reduce crime.” Homicide in this country, he said, has grown 300 percent since the Gun Control Act of 1968. “The fact is that the number of times a gun was used in the commission of murder has increased since . . . 1968,” he said. U.S. Rep. Robert L. F. Sikes a long-time opponent of gun control, told a Subcommittee on Crime of the House Committee on the Judiciary in 1975 that firearms registration would fail because “criminals will not register their weapons. Furthermore, it is illogical to assume that a central registration list would serve an effective law enforcement tool (“Pro and Con”, December 1975, p. 303). His House colleague Marjorie S. Holt of Maryland added, “There is no way to legislate them away. To make handguns illegal would have the effect of producing the most preposterous black market this country has seen since prohibition (p. 204). She also cited “an excellent example of the ineffectiveness of gun controls.” A campaign by the Baltimore, Maryland Police Dept. in 1974 to rid the city of guns appeared to have failed. Holt said:
Some 14,000 guns were collected at a cost of approximately $700,000 in an hysterical campaign. (After bounties were offered for citizens to turn in their weapons.) The violent crime rate has not declined. It has increased. The message is that the predators did not a surrender their guns, but were probably delighted that their victims were voluntarily disarming themselves (pp. 307, 309).
E. B. Mann, writing his column in Field and Stream, pointed to the contrast in crime rates between New York state, which requires a police permit to own a gun and in nearby Vermont, “where the sole state concession to gun controls is a ban against ‘carrying a gun for criminal purposes.'” In New York, the incidence of violent crime (murder, forcible rape, robbery and aggravated assault) is 791.6 per 100,000 population. In Vermont, the violent crime rate is 50.1 per 100,000 (Mann, January 1977, p. 72).
”State and local firearms regulation,” said Franklin E. Zimring, the University of Chicago law professor “is a patchwork quilt of more thin 20,000 laws, many of them obsolete, unenforced or unenforceable” (Kukla, 1973, p. 548). But despite a succession of stiffer laws, crime has increased. However, advocates and critics of gun-control legislation continue to argue the merits of a given study or the meaning of a particular statistic. This paper attempted to outline the arguments–and list the data–used by opponents of gun control. Their interpretations, logic and conclusions were presented, with the goal of justifying their stand that gun control has been ineffective at stopping crime–and that future attempts to limit the possession and sale of firearms might also backfire.