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Pro & Con: Regulating gun show sales of firearms

Friday, October 13, 2000

by JOHN R. LOTT Jr.

Who could possibly oppose closing the gun show loophole? Preventing criminals from obtaining guns is everyone's goal. It is an important goal even though fewer than 2 percent of criminal guns originate from gun shows. Yet, Measure 5 has little to do with gun shows and will not stop criminals from obtaining guns.

Claims about a loophole have convinced many people that the rules for buying a gun at a gun show are different from buying a gun elsewhere. That is false. Two types of people sell guns: registered dealers and private individuals. Registered dealers must fill out the same forms and meet the same requirements regardless of where they sell a gun.

Private transfers are unregulated, but they are unregulated both inside and outside a gun show. If the initiative passes and private transfers at gun shows are regulated in the same way as the sales by registered dealers, the initiative's advocates will next complain about a new loophole, private transfers outside of shows.

The initiative clumsily attempts to plug this new loophole by defining "gun shows" so broadly as to encompass many non-gun show transfers of guns. If a father owns a gun collection and gives one to his child for Christmas, that transfer risks being classified as a "gun show."

Even the authors of the initiative apparently realize that even these broad gun transfer checks will not stop criminals who don't want their transfers monitored. To try tracking transfers, they mandate that registration records will be kept by the government for five years on all guns (not just handguns, which is the current rule). Unfortunately, such cumbersome measures will increase crime, not decrease it.

Licensing and registration may sound like effective crime fighting tools: If a gun is left at the scene of the crime, one could possibly trace a gun back to its owner. But, amazingly, despite police spending tens of thousands of man hours annually administering these laws for decades in Hawaii (the one state with both rules), or in Chicago and Washington, D.C., there has not been one single case where the laws have been instrumental in identifying someone who has committed a crime.

The reason is simple. First, criminals very rarely leave their guns at the scene of the crime. Would-be criminals also virtually never register their weapons.

Yet, aren't background checks effective in preventing criminals from getting guns? Unfortunately, no. Despite extensive research, there is not one single academic study concluding that background checks reduce violent crime.

Criminals aren't stopped simply because they don't obey the laws. But it is the law-abiding citizens who suffer the consequences. For example, the Brady Act's waiting period prevented women who were stalked or threatened from quickly obtaining guns for self-defense.

Measure 5 faces even worse problems with indefinite delays possible in obtaining a gun. The poor will also bear the brunt of the fees and risk being priced out of gun ownership. They are the ones most vulnerable to crime and who benefit the most from being able to protect themselves.

Furthermore, the rules are needlessly complicated. For example, if the gun is not transferred within 24 hours of approval, the entire process has to be gone through again.

Even if a gun show initiative indeed reduced crime, why have a definition so broad that it criminalizes the simple transfer of a gun between family members? Rules discouraging law-abiding citizens from obtaining guns or diverting police resources to handling unproductive paperwork increase violent crime.


John Lott Jr. is a senior research scholar at the Yale University Law School and author of More Guns, Less Crime. The second edition of his book "More Guns, Less Crime: Understanding Crime and Gun Control Laws" will be published in June of 2000.

More Guns, Less Crime
by John Lott, Jr.

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 QUOTES TO REMEMBER
The prohibition is general. No clause in the Constitution could by any rule of construction be conceived to give to Congress a power to disarm the people. Such a flagitious attempt could only be made under some general pretense by a state legislature. But if in any blind pursuit of inordinate power, either should attempt it, this amendment may be appealed to as a restraint on both. William Rawle, A View of the Constitution 125-6 (2nd ed. 1829)

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