Gun-rights advocates' knees jerk twice when they get within kicking range of gun-control legislation. Reflex Response #1: Guns don't kill, people do. Reflex Response #2: We don't need more gun laws; we need to enforce the laws already books.
The "enforce the laws" camp got a boost last week from a study by the Americans for Gun Safety Foundation that documents the embarrassing extent to which federal gun laws are not, in fact, enforced. Of the 22 major federal gun statutes, 20 are almost completely ignored. And they happen to be the laws intended to combat the black-market for firearms.
It's a disgrace.
And it's a shame the report received so little attention from my colleagues in the press, but it's not a surprise. It wasn't obvious how the study could be exploited by opposing sides in the over-heated, over-simplified ideological gun wars. The gun lobby really isn't interested in tough enforcement of laws that could inconvenience manufacturers and dealers. The gun-control lobby doesn't want to undermine its call for tougher laws.
The study, "The Enforcement Gap: Federal Gun Laws Ignored," hits the bull's-eye. Using data obtained from the Department of Justice through the Freedom of Information Act, it found that in 2000, 2001, and 2002 both the Clinton and Bush administrations neglected a slew of laws targeting the black market for guns, corrupt gun dealers, "straw purchase" scams, sales of guns to minors, people who lie on criminal background checks and stolen guns.
Eight-five percent of all gun prosecutions in this period were cases where a convicted felon had a firearm or a gun was used in the course of violent or drug crime. In other words, if someone got busted and happened to have a gun on him, the feds would toss in a gun charge.
But federal law enforcement has not systematically targeted the illegal gun trade that provides many of the guns used in 350,000 violent gun crimes and 9,000 gun homicides a year. And that, of course, is the special mission of the feds as opposed to state and local police. The local police can handle the liquor store hold-up. They can't handle an interstate gun ring or a sophisticated dealer; that's for the feds.
Some jaw-dropping findings:
John Ashcroft's Justice Department says it has made prosecution of the gun laws a higher priority. In the last year, they report that gun trafficking prosecutions have doubled, prosecutions for destroying a gun's serial number have gone up 25 percent and "lie and try" gun application cases have gone up 8 percent. They say they are adding prosecutors and working more closely with state and local police.
Clearly, this hasn't been a priority for a Democratic or Republican Justice Department for a long time. And the study shows that in many states, federal prosecutors neglect gun laws flat out.
You would have thought the gun lobby Goliaths, the NRA and the National Shooting Sports Foundation, would have jumped on this bandwagon. The study proves their point – federal gun laws aren't being enforced. I don't know why they aren't.
I do know that the NRA thinks that Americans for Gun Safety is a leftie, confiscate-all-guns group parading as a moderate think tank that respects gun rights. And the leading gun-control groups, on the left flank, are equally suspicious of the AGS's "moderate" packaging.
The gun lobby right now is at the absolute top of its game. The Democratic Party is in full retreat on gun issues. Just listen to the party's most liberal presidential candidate, Howard Dean: "We need to get guns off the national radar screen if Democrats are ever going to win in the South and the West."
Congress is on the verge of giving the gun industry protections from civil lawsuits that no other business could dare dream of. That would put a stop to pesky lawsuits that gun victims and interest groups have filed against dealers and manufacturers.
The ban on assault weapons is likely to expire next year, even though President Bush said he favors extending it. He's just not going to actually do anything to extend it, proving a wily president can have his cake and eat it.
In that context, it's hard to see why any great new pressure to enforce existing gun laws will materialize. Everybody says they favor tough enforcement, they always have. But if it were true, it would have happened.
Dick Meyer, the Editorial Director of CBSNews.com, is based in Washington. For many years, he was a political and investigative producer for The CBS News Evening News With Dan Rather.
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Against the Grain
By Dick Meyer