2001 — the year in review:
Terror attacks add to shifting gun-control landscape
If it seemed that the gun-control lobby was losing ground early last year in the face of a staunchly pro-gun White House and Justice Department, the landscape shifted even further in the aftermath of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, as a shaken nation sharply increased its purchases of firearms.
According to FBI statistics, the number of background checks for gun sales and other transactions rose to 864,038 in September of 2001 - 10.5 percent higher than the same month in 2000. In October, when they peaked, that figure rose to 1,029,691 from 845,886 the same month one year earlier — a jump of nearly 22 percent. In December, the bureau reported, the figures appeared to be slightly lower, although the holiday gift-buying season had not yet ended.
In a survey conducted by the National Shooting Sports Foundation shortly after Sept. 11, about 15 percent of gun retailers reported sales increases of more than 25 percent. The majority of those were in New York, Washington and Florida. Sales of ammunition rose by more than 30 percent.
The continued proliferation of firearms has given pause to many in policing. Said North Miami Beach, Fla., Police Chief William B. Berger, president of the International Association of Chiefs of Police: “We are always concerned with the overall number of guns that are available and out on the street making things unmanageable for law enforcement.”
In December, many lawmakers, law enforcement officials and others had their earlier fears about a pro-gun White House and Justice Department reinforced when Attorney General John Ashcroft refused to let the FBI use its instant background check system to determine whether any of the 1,200 people detained after Sept. 11 had purchased a gun. The move by Ashcroft, some said, was unusually solicitous of foreigners’ gun rights, and was evidence that he was letting his pro-gun views override the needs of a federal terrorism investigation.
The decision was “absurd and unconscionable,” said Los Gatos, Calif., Police Chief Larry Todd, a member of the IACP’s firearms committee. “It sounds to me like it was made for narrow political reasons based on a right-to-bear arms mentality,” he said. “If someone is under investigation for a terrorist act, all the records we have in this country should be checked, including whether they bought firearms.”
A spokeswoman for the Justice Department, Mindy Tucker, said the department made its decision in October after the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms asked the FBI to check the names of 186 detainees against those in the National Instant Criminal Background Check System (NICS) the previous month.
FBI officials said they got a hit on two of the names. By the next day, however, the FBI unit that maintains the records was advised that they could not be reviewed for purposes of the terrorism probe. “We intend to use every legal tool available to protect American lives,” said John Collingwood, an assistant director of the FBI, but “applicable law does not permit” the NICS to be used to investigate individuals.
Throughout the year, pro-gun control advocates had seen earlier gains reversed:
Confident that the Bush administration would not support a program favoring a code of conduct on gun manufacturers, the gun industry dropped its suit against the Department of Housing and Urban Development in January. “It is clear that the election of George W. Bush changes the dynamic regarding this pattern of government abuse coached by President Clinton and quarterbacked by” HUD secretary Andrew Cuomo, said Robert Delfay, president and chief executive of the National Shooting Sports Foundation.
A shooter takes aim at a target bearing a picture of Osama bin Laden during practice at a Dallas shooting range. Sales of firearms were reportedly up sharply in the aftermath of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.
HUD informed public housing authorities in July that a federal gun-buyback program would be eliminated. The $15-million initiative launched in 1999 was slashed, officials said, because its effectiveness in removing guns from the streets could not be proven.
Attorney General John Ashcroft announces that the Justice Department is preparing a legal opinion which would argue that individuals, not just groups, are entitled to own firearms.
The undersecretary of state for arms control and international security affairs, John R. Bolton, tells participants at a United Nations conference in July that the U.S. would oppose negotiations leading to a binding legal agreement to curb illegal small arms trafficking.
A ban on sales of small handguns known as “pocket rockets” was proposed by Los Angeles City Councilman Mike Feuer in March. While the initiative was resisted by gun owners, it won the support of the city’s law enforcement officials.
A study by the Bureau of Justice Statistics, released in July, found that more than 2 percent of some 30 million applications for handgun ownership have been rejected since the Brady Act was enacted in 1994. In 2000, the study said, the number of handgun permits dropped nationally by 11 percent compared to the previous year, and by approximately 25 percent in California and Indiana.
Police officers may publicly preach gun safety, but they rarely practice it in their own homes, according to a study from the University of North Carolina. Of 207 members of an unidentified Southern law enforcement agency, 44 percent said they kept a loaded, unlocked gun in their home. Of the 55 percent who had children, 65 percent reported keeping firearms unloaded, and 69 percent said they kept their weapons locked up.
A report by the General Accounting Office in March said that loopholes in the Brady Act allowed undercover federal agents to purchase a variety of weapons using counterfeit identification created with off-the-shelf software. Transactions in Montana, Arizona, New Mexico, Virginia and West Virginia yielded seven firearms, including a 7.62mm Russian semiautomatic rifle and a .22 semiautomatic rifle, and a 30-round banana clip.