They All Start Out the Same

Guns and the law

They All Start Out the Same
Photo by John Anderson

"The gun has always been a fascinating item for Americans," says Greg Karim, the Austin Police Department's firearms examiner. "Guns, or as they're described, as 'arms,' are written into our Bill of Rights – where would we have been with the British if we'd only had pitchforks?" Researchers estimate that Americans own somewhere in the neighborhood of 200 million to 250 million guns – the vast majority of which are owned legally. But within that universe are firearms that journey to the illegal market and into the hands of individuals that by law are prohibited from owning any sort of firearm. According to Duke University economist Philip Cook, nearly 500,000 firearms are stolen each year – many of them stored unlocked by owners ready to use them for self-defense.

Federal laws regulate only interstate transactions, banning most of these firearm "transfers" and sales, except among licensed manufacturers and retailers – known as Federal Firearms Licensees, who are regulated and inspected by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms, to whom they must report all transactions. Federal law also prohibits certain persons from owning or possessing firearms and provides stiff penalties for violations – including juveniles, convicted felons, fugitives, drug users or dealers, illegal aliens, and individuals subject to a protective order or who have been convicted of any family-violence charge. In 1993 Congress added the Brady Handgun Violence Prevention Act to the regulatory mix, requiring consumers to submit to (and pass) a criminal background check when purchasing a firearm from any FFL. (From 1994 to 2004, the feds processed nearly 62 million background checks in connection with firearm purchases; just more than 1.2 million buyers were rejected. There were nearly 3.5 million checks in Texas, of which less than 54,000 were rejected.)

The rest is left to state lawmakers, meaning firearm laws vary widely from state to state – and often from municipality to municipality. Washington, D.C., and Chicago, for example, ban handgun ownership by private individuals; in contrast, Texas law forbids a municipality from contemplating any such prohibition.

There is no federal firearm registry, nor is there any comprehensive regulation of the resale of firearms between private individuals – including at gun shows and flea markets or through classified ads – so long as the trans­fer is intrastate and in compliance with state law. The International Associa­tion of Chiefs of Police estimates that around 40% of all gun transfers fall into these unregulated categories, which Cook estimates comes out to between 2 million and 3 million transactions per year. But because most secondary sales do not require a background check, it's hard, if not impossible, to determine exactly how many weapons are in circulation and who actually has access to them.

Unlike illicit drugs, however, all firearms start out on the legal market. They are legally manufactured, distributed, and retailed just like any other consumer good – like cars, refrigerators, or stereo equipment. "You can compare guns to cars," explains Karim. "All cars come out of the factory the same. Do you know which will be used in a hit-and-run? No. Do you know which will be used in a vehicular manslaughter? No. They all start out the same." And that, says agent Franceska Perot, is why the ATF strives to keep all firearm transactions legit.

Preventing "that first diversion" is crucial, says Daniel Webster of the Johns Hopkins Center for Gun Policy and Research, "because once [a firearm enters] the black market, all bets are off," and those guns are unlikely to resurface until implicated in a crime or other tragic incident – not unlike the case of Kevin Brown's Jennings .22. But whether police can get ahead of the game, says Webster, depends on whether eliminating gun crime and unlawful possession are identified and pursued as a policing priority.

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