Feds Shoot Blanks On Gun Laws

CAROUSEL Actors Scott Bailey, right, and Adrienne Frantz arrive at the 61st Primetime Emmy Awards on Sunday, Sept. 20, 2009, in Los Angeles. AP

The gun lobby has long said we just need to enforce the gun laws that already exist. It turns out, they're right – federal gun laws aren't being enforced. In his latest Against the Grain commentary, CBSNews.com's Dick Meyer says it's a scandal.


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:

  • Between 2000 and 2002, an estimated 420,000 guns were reported stolen to police. During that period, federal prosecutors brought only 524 stolen gun charges forward.

  • In that same period, approximately 450,000 potential gun buyers illegally lied on their applications, but the feds brought only 1,594 charges against the people who lied on background checks.

  • In the 1999-2000 school year alone, 2,837 students were caught with guns in school, yet from 2000 to 2002 the feds filed only 40 cases. Prosecutors in 38 states didn't file a single charge of selling guns to a minor in these years, though under-17 youths committed an estimated 93,000 gun crimes.

  • In 2000-2002, federal prosecutors made only 88 charges under the statutes that deal with illegal activities by gun stores. In 22 states with a total of 29,418 licensed gun stores, no cases were brought.

  • One-fifth of all federal gun trafficking cases were brought in just one state – New York.

    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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