Neither bans worked very well because of the loopholes Congress put into the law, including grandfather clauses for magazines already ordered. The magazines continued to flow in from overseas by the millions. Additionally, those guns considered assault weapons were used in only about 2 percent of crimes, Koper said. The threat from them compared to other guns appears to be exaggerated.
There are signs in the statistics that had the law been in effect longer, it might have made a difference, but Congress let the ban expire in 2004.
Philip Cook of Duke University said the Brady Act, passed in 1994 after President Reagan was shot, probably hasn’t worked very well either. The law, which prohibits gun sales to certain people, is hamstrung by an inefficient and ineffective reporting system and an incomplete database—much of which is by design of either Congress or state Legislatures.
Agencies are not sharing information. States, in part due to privacy laws, are not reporting mental health records. There are both technical and financial problems with fully implementing current restrictions.
The mentally ill, people with criminal records, and criminals with mental problems are still buying guns, said Linda Frisman of the University of Connecticut. In most places, no one comes to take away guns from people who are prohibited from having them.
Contrary to popular opinion, gun shows sell only a small percentage of the guns that wind up used in crimes. Most guns used in crimes (80 percent) are bought on the private market, and many are sold by federally licensed dealers. Surveys of dealers have found that a disturbing number (20 percent) admit they’d sell guns to people prohibited from buying a weapon, and Congress has blocked efforts to stamp out the illegal sales.
“We have a lot of laws that protect licensed gun dealers from inspections, license revocations, prosecution, lawsuits and even general embarrassment by hiding the data connected to different gun dealers,” said Daniel Webster of Hopkins. “Some gun dealers sell far, far more guns that wind up in the hands of criminals than other licensed dealers.”
One percent of gun dealers are responsible for half the guns used in crimes, said Jon Vernick, also of Hopkins. Yet Congress has limited inspections by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives to one a year, and ATF is so underfunded that many dealers won’t see an inspection in 17 years.
Maybe people who own guns should be licensed, Vernick said. Every state has a requirement that cosmetologists are licensed, he pointed out, but only 17 states require gun licenses.
“An array of complementary actions have been proposed that make it fairly difficult even for a malevolent industry—which I do not think we have; we have essentially an amoral enterprise maximizing profits and minimizing liability—to make it difficult to thrive in legal commerce,” Wintemute said. There are options.
All is not gloom, however.
America is not a particularly violent country, according to Matthew Miller of the Harvard School of Public Health. The rate of violent crimes falls right in the middle of the rates in other high-income nations. American kids are not more likely to get into fights at school, and Americans are not more likely to be mentally ill than people in comparable countries.
“What we do have is guns. Especially handguns. And we have more homicides,” Miller said. “Our firearm homicide rate is an order of magnitude higher than in these other countries. Our rates of homicides with non-gun mechanisms—knives, bats, whatever—is pretty much right where they are in other high income countries.”
And guns make all the difference, Miller said. “We’re not more violent, but when we are violent, we kill.”