2000 — the year in review:
Calling the shots on a hot-button issue
From Massachusetts to California, states last year called the shots in the still-simmering gun-control debate. Not only did they impose their own strictures on gun ownership through hard-hitting legislation that forced concessions out of the firearms industry, but beat federal law enforcement in the number of would-be buyers rejected due to failed background checks. When one of the nation’s leading gun manufacturers agreed to higher safety standards, it was state prosecutors, moreover, who investigated the industry for possible retaliation.
According to a report released in June by the Bureau of Justice Statistics, 204,000 of some 8.6 million prospective gun sales were blocked in 1999. The rejection rate among state and local agencies was 3 percent, compared to just 1.8 percent for the FBI.
The report marked the first time that hard numbers have been provided on the difference between checks by state and municipal police and those done by the bureau. Federal agents performed 4.5 million of the 8.6 million checks in 1999, said the study, as compared with 4.1 million done by state and local agencies.
Differences in the rejection rate were attributed to state agencies’ access to more detailed criminal history records than the FBI’s. Seventy-three percent of would-be purchasers were rejected that year because of convictions or indictments on felony charges.
Seizing on the public sentiment generated in the aftermath of the Columbine High School massacre in 1999 and other school shooting incidents, state officials and lawmakers in 2000 pushed for tough new gun regulations including raising the age for legal ownership, imposing license requirements and increasing penalties for carelessness in keeping guns out of reach of children. Not all were successful, but many were.
In New York, Gov. George Pataki in August signed legislation creating the strictest gun laws in the nation. The wide-ranging package of controls included the test-firing of all new handguns so that markings left on bullets and shell casings can be entered into a state computer data base; a ban on assault weapons and large-capacity ammunition clips; mandated background checks for handgun buyers at gun shows; trigger locks on new guns; raising from 18 to 21 the legal age for buying a firearm; the creation of a criminal purchase offense for straw buyers; a state police study of sources of illegal guns; a study of “smart gun” technology, and a requirement that gun owners report lost or stolen guns to police.
New Hampshire State Senator Burt Cohen, a Democrat from New Castle, proposed a bill that same month that made it a Class A misdemeanor to leave a loaded weapon where a child can gain access to it without permission if the gun is used in a reckless or threatening manner, during the commission of a crime, or is negligently or recklessly discharged.
Without passing further legislation, Massachusetts officials were able to ratchet up their gun controls by extending existing consumer protections to include handgun safety requirements. Under the new rules, established in March, all handguns must have childproof safety locks, tamperproof serial numbers and written warning material produced by the attorney general’s office. The regulations also effectively ban Saturday Night specials by imposing strict manufacturing standards.
Legislation that takes advantage of smart gun technology and other innovations in weapons manufacturing was proposed by New Jersey lawmakers in March. Under the bill, a 30-month compliance deadline would be set once the state determines the guns are commercially available. Another measure would require guns sold in the state to have a “ballistic identifier” which would provide a match between a bullet and the gun that fired it.
In California, legislation which would have required all potential gun buyers to pass a skills test and be licensed was pulled after it squeaked through in the Senate in August in a 22-15 vote. The required license would have cost $25 and would be subject to renewal after five years. But seeing little chance that it would either pass the Assembly or be signed into law by Gov. Gray Davis, its sponsor, Assemblyman Jack Scott (D.-Altadena), dropped it before the Legislature adjourned. Davis had called for a moratorium in 1999 on all new gun controls.
Although a popular argument waged by opponents of gun control is that there are already plenty of laws on the books regulating firearms, a survey by the New York-based Open Society Institute found that fewer than 10 states have laws that require the registration of handguns and assault weapons, a waiting period, a junk gun ban, or other statutes considered to be basic firearms regulations by gun control advocates.
A number of other studies exploring the issue were released last year, as well.
In a book published by Oxford University Press in October, “Gun Violence: The Real Costs,” two economists placed the cost of gun violence in America at $100 billion a year
A nationwide telephone survey of 1,005 high school students released in August showed that nine out of 10 favored completing a required safety course and obtaining a license before buying a handgun. The same number favored criminal background checks, and 96 percent said weapons should be registered when purchased so they could be traced if necessary.
The Brady Law has done little to affect firearms-related homicide and suicide rates in states that previously had similar restrictions, according to a study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association. The study analyzed national homicide and suicide data between 1985 and 1997.
A national survey published in the American Journal of Public Health found that more than 22 million children live in homes with firearms, and that 43 percent of the time, these guns are neither locked up, nor fitted with trigger locks.
A telephone survey of Maine residents found that 92.3 percent favored taking handguns away from those under domestic abuse restraining orders. Raising the minimum age for gun ownership from 16 to 18 was favored by 89.6 percent of respondents. But 44.1 percent said they believed handgun laws should be kept as they are as compared to 42.8 percent who said they should be stricter.
Hundreds of thousands of cable-style gun locks handed out to police agencies by an organization representing gun manufacturers , for subsequent distribution to the public, seemed like a good idea last year. And it was, many in law enforcement agree. The only problem was that the locks donated under Project HomeSafe proved faulty, prompting a massive recall in the fall.
In October, reports by police departments in Knoxville and Chattanooga that the locks broke open when jostled caused law enforcement agencies across the nation to suspend their initiatives or ask residents to return the devices. Some agencies stopped distributing the locks, even though they had found no problems with them.
The Federal government and law enforcement agencies in 2000 also found themselves coming to the aid of Smith & Wesson, the nation’s largest gun manufacturer, after it broke ranks with the industry.
“Smith & Wesson is under absolutely unprecedented pressure, both financial and personal within the gun industry, with threats that are almost violent in nature, and I have heard the fear that it could be put out of business,” said Richard Blumenthal, the Connecticut attorney general, who was instrumental in forging the agreement in March between the firm and the government.
In exchange for immunity from threatened legal action by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) and the states of New York and Connecticut, Smith & Wesson, a British-owned company, agreed to a list of safety and sales concessions demanded by the Clinton Administration.
Among those items was the inclusion of safety locks with all its handguns within 60 days; internal locking devices within 24 months; the imprinting of a second, hidden serial number; and the expenditure of 2 percent of its gross sales revenue on smart guns. Smith & Wesson also agreed to limit factory sales of guns to those dealers who sign stringent codes of conduct.
Hard on the heels of the agreement, Smith & Wesson was dropped by the nation’s largest gun wholesaler, RSR Group Inc. of Winter Park, Fla. Other sellers followed suit, and even the company’s law firm dropped it as a client. Prosecutors in six states subsequently launched antitrust investigations.
“We are seeing behavior on the part of Smith & Wesson’s competitors that raises the specter of illegal antitrust activity,” said New York Attorey General Eliot Spitzer. “This is serious stuff.”
Law enforcement was asked to support the firm by buying its firearms. Led by the HUD, officials from 29 cities and counties said they would push their police agencies to buy guns from manufacturers who agree to higher safety standards. Included were such cities as Los Angeles, New Orleans and St. Louis, and smaller ones, such as Bloomington, Ind., and Flint, Mich.
“Why wouldn’t we want to patronize the company that is doing the most (it) can to keep guns out of the hands of criminals in the first place?” asked HUD Secretary Andrew Cuomo, who noted that law enforcement purchases account for 30 percent of gun sales in the nation.