Looking beyond the familiar appeal of licensing and registration, it is important to explore what effect such measures could actually have on gun death and injury in the United States, as well as to examine how current licensing and registration proposals being discussed in the United States might inadvertently work to undermine existing restrictions on interstate gun sales.
Licensing and Registration Can’t Control Human Nature
Discussions of licensing and registration, like the majority of gun control proposals, most often occur in the United States in the wake of high-profile shootings where an armed attacker guns down innocent victims. Other traditional images of “gun violence”—the criminal lurking in a dark alley, drive-by shootings, and convenience store hold-ups—also fuel these discussions. Licensing and registration is presented as a way to keep guns away from these criminals and out of other “wrong hands.” Yet, most gun death and injury in the United States is not committed in conjunction with a criminal act. In 1998, only seven percent of all firearm-related deaths occurred during the commission of another felony.6 The true nature of firearms death and injury in the United States must be examined and understood before determining whether licensing and registration is an effective response.
Firearm homicides in America typically occur between people who know each other. In 1998, there were 9,755 firearm homicides reported to the Federal Bureau of Investigation. For all firearm homicides, where the victim/offender relationship could be determined, more than two thirds of the victims were either related to (16 percent) or acquainted with (54 percent) their killers. Only 30 percent were killed by strangers. Additionally, 40 percent of all firearm murders stemmed from arguments, compared to 25 percent resulting from felonious activity.
This is not to say that the disgruntled coworker or alley-dwelling robber does not exist. What the FBI statistics reveal, and America’s police have long known, is that most firearm murders do not result from a criminal attack or premeditated murder. The majority of firearm murders stem from arguments that turn deadly because of ready access to a firearm. The FBI’s Uniform Crime Reports noted as early as 1963 that the “easy accessibility of firearms and the lethal nature of a gun are clearly apparent in these murder figures. When assaults by type of weapon are examined, a gun proves to be seven times more deadly than all other weapons combined.”7
And while high-profile shootings are often the catalyst for debate over licensing and registration, more often than not the weapons used in these incidents were possessed legally. A 2000 analysis by the Violence Policy Center looked at 50 high-profile shootings over the past four decades. The bulk of the shootings were, not surprisingly, mass shootings from 1980 onward. Of these shootings—
- A handgun was used in 68 percent of the shootings (34 cases) as the only or primary weapon, while in 32 percent (16 cases) a rifle or shotgun was used as the only or primary weapon.8
- In 53 percent of the handgun shootings (18 cases) the handguns were purchased legally.9
- In 75 percent of the long-gun shootings (12 cases) the guns were purchased legally.10
In the 1999 killing of seven at a Xerox Corporation office in Honolulu, not only was the gun purchased legally, the owner was licensed and the gun was registered with the state of Hawaii.11
Most injuries during arguments are inflicted with whatever is at hand. The outcome depends on the lethality of the weapon employed. As the FBI notes, the availability of a gun in the home or carried on the street gives individuals access to an extraordinarily lethal means to vent their rage. In these instances, whether the shooter was licensed or his gun registered would not change the outcome of the homicide.
Gun homicides are often discussed as if they were synonymous with all firearm deaths. In fact, most gun deaths are suicides. In 1998 there were 17,424 gun suicides in the United States. Like murders, most gun suicides are not committed with weapons purchased specifically for the attempt, but with firearms already available. It is estimated that only 10 percent of suicides by firearm are committed with a weapon purchased specifically for the act.12
Research has consistently found that it is the easy availability of firearms combined with their unparalleled lethality that make them our nation’s number one suicide tool. A 1999 New England Journal of Medicine study found that, compared to the general population, handgun purchasers remained at an increased risk for firearm suicide over the six-year study period following initial purchase.13 The time delay associated with obtaining a license may affect those few individuals who run out to buy a handgun to immediately kill themselves by allowing them time to reconsider, but its overall effect on suicide would be slight, and could just as easily be accomplished with a waiting period. Registration would, of course, have no effect on suicide.
The third and final category of firearm-related death is unintentional injury. In 1998 there were 866 unintentional gun deaths. The most common causes of unintentional gun injury are: hunting; firearms mistakenly presumed to be unloaded, often fired by children; or gun cleaning. Licensing and registration alone would have no effect on such incidents. And while some have argued that safety training of gun owners would reduce such deaths, the next section explains how even this claim is contradicted by the available research.
Ultimately, the theory behind licensing and registration is that those prone to anger, depression, or carelessness can somehow be segregated. However, when the recurring and easily recognized patterns of gun violence are carefully analyzed, the limitations of such an approach are readily apparent.
The Trojan Horse of Safety Training
Incorporating mandatory firearms safety training is often cited as a key way in which licensing would reduce gun death and injury. Public health research on the effectiveness of such training, however, reveals that such courses can actually lead to reckless behavior that increases the opportunity for death and injury.
A 1992 JAMA (Journal of the American Medical Association) study entitled “Loaded Guns in the Home” by Douglas Weil and David Hemenway, found that firearms safety training—whether from a classroom, the military, or other outlet—”did not seem to affect the probability of keeping guns loaded.”14 A second Hemenway study published in JAMA three years later, “Firearm Training and Storage,” found that “individuals who have received training are more likely to keep a gun loaded and unlocked than those who have received no training, even when controlling for other factors.”15 One possible reason for this counterintuitive result, the authors concluded, was that “training increases owners’ confidence in their ability to handle a loaded weapon without fear of unintentional injury.”16
The 1996 Police Foundation study Guns in America, by Philip Cook and Jens Ludwig, found that 58 percent of all gun owners already have had formal training on firearms, yet the authors concluded that “formal training in the use of firearms does not affect the likelihood of unsafe gun storage.”17 Cook and Ludwig found that adult gun owners who had undergone safety training were just as likely to keep a gun loaded and unlocked as adult gun owners who had gone without safety training. Most recently, a study published in the July 2000 Pediatrics found that firearms safety-counseling by a pediatrician during a well-child check-up, even when combined with economic incentives to purchase safe-storage devices, “did not lead to changes in household gun ownership and did not lead to statistically significant overall changes in storage patterns.”18 These results are not surprising. Similar patterns have been documented by public health researchers who have looked at the efficacy of driver safety training.19
From the research available, safety training appears to have little success in increasing the safe storage of firearms, and may in fact have the opposite effect.
In addition, the majority of such training would inevitably be conducted by National Rifle Association-certified instructors, offering the gun lobby a steady flow of possible recruits. The NRA has proven itself highly adept at using federal and state legislation to serve its own interests, and would almost certainly fight for favorable language in any firearm training component of a licensing and registration package.
A Money Pit
An important consideration in judging the potential benefit of a licensing system is its cost. Licensing systems are extremely expensive to administer as revealed by Canada’s experience with its full licensing and registration system for all firearms, begun in December 1998.
The Canadian government originally estimated that the cost of licensing Canada’s three million gun owners and registering their seven million guns would be $185 million [Canadian] over five years, including a one-time start-up cost of $85 million [Canadian].20 But, by March 2000, the Canadian Firearms Centre admitted that the system had already cost Canadian taxpayers $327 million [Canadian] and was running up an annual bill dramatically higher than the government’s original forecast.
Using these figures as a baseline for America’s arsenal of more than 65 million handguns (let alone its total gun arsenal of more than 190 million weapons), the estimated cost of such a system is staggering. In addition, when faced with such large sums dedicated to increasing public safety, inevitable questions will arise regarding whether such funds could be better spent placing more policemen on the street, upgrading law enforcement resources, or increasing support for other crime-related resources, such as domestic violence shelters.
Concealed Carry: A Laboratory for Licensing
Problems documented in states that issue licenses allowing gun owners to carry handguns concealed also raise important questions. Like proposals to license gun buyers, existing concealed carry laws require background checks and sometimes safety training of applicants. The Violence Policy Center has analyzed concealed carry licensing systems in Florida and Texas—the two most populous states with such laws. The research demonstrates serious deficiencies in the effectiveness of licensing as a screening mechanism. In its five studies of the Florida and Texas licensing systems, the VPC has found that: 1) the systems routinely fail to screen out criminals and other dangerous individuals; and, 2) the screening process offers no guarantee that those who meet the licensing criteria will not commit crimes in the future.21
For example, since Texas’ concealed handgun law went into effect in 1996, more than 3,370 license holders have been arrested—an average of more than two arrests a day. Crimes for which license holders were arrested include: 23 cases of murder/attempted murder; 11 cases of kidnapping/false imprisonment; 60 cases of rape/sexual assault; 527 cases of assault; and 873 weapon-related offenses. From the law’s enactment to the end of 1999, the weapon-related arrest rate among Texas concealed handgun license holders was 66 percent higher than that of the general population of Texas aged 21 and over.22
Furthermore, as noted earlier, under current federal law those holding a valid state-issued permit or license to carry a concealed weapon are not required to undergo a background check when they purchase a firearm. In theory, the check conducted when the license was issued would suffice. This dramatic loophole has already been identified as a boon to criminal gun traffickers.23
A Political Nightmare
A legislative battle over licensing and registration would be a political minefield. The National Rifle Association would surely work tirelessly to ensure that a license to possess would also be a license to carry. A second goal of the NRA would be to use the new system to undermine the current ban on interstate handgun sales, a cornerstone of federal gun policy. And the NRA, citing the overly optimistic arguments in support of licensing and registration, would most likely succeed.
It is also important to remember, as noted earlier, that pro-gunners are phobic on the subject of registration and wax positively Orwellian over the dark motives they see lurking behind any plan to create a gun ownership list. In fact, a pitched political battle over licensing and registration would act as a catalyst for the pro-gun movement and be a boon for NRA fundraising. For decades gun owners have been indoctrinated to believe that “registration leads to confiscation.” Moreover, the NRA has launched a campaign for the 2000 elections warning gun owners: “Register to Vote. Or Register Your Guns? The Choice is Yours.”
As noted earlier, the gun lobby’s fear of a national firearms registry is so pervasive that it made certain that the 1986 Firearms Owners’ Protection Act contained a provision specifically forbidding the federal government from creating a central gun registry—a provision that must be repealed in order to implement any new licensing and registration system.