Friday, February 04, 2005


Along with abortion and a few other issues, guns galvanize public passion to an unusual degree. Outside the armed camps of gun-control advocates and gun-rights groups, a largely sensible center supports the right to keep and bear arms within reason. The constant question is just what right reason requires. This newspaper supports gun rights within limits, such as Virginia's one-gun-a-month restriction, which has helped reduce "straw purchases" and gun-running along the East Coast. It also supports laws limiting true assault weapons to police and military forces.

The General Assembly has been considering a proposal to close the "gun-show loophole." The other day the Senate shot the measure down, but count on its reappearance -- either during this session or a future one.

The proposal would require private sellers of firearms -- gun hobbyists, collectors, and so on -- to conduct background checks on potential buyers, as existing licensed gun dealers must do. As in any question involving the infringement of individual liberties, the burden of proof lies on those supporting greater restrictions. Do they meet it? Herewith, some pertinent points to consider:

* The National Shooting Sports Foundation reports that total sales of all guns exceed $2 billion a year. Of all guns sold, only a fraction are purchased at gun shows.

* Of the fraction of weapons bought at gun shows, most are purchased through licensed dealers who must perform background checks.

* Thus individual firearm sales at gun shows account for only a minuscule percentage of all weapons purchases.

The question, of course, is whether that minuscule fraction of weapons purchases accounts for an inordinate percentage of weapons used in crimes. The answer appears to be a resounding no.

* A report from the Bureau of Justice Statistics based on interviews with 18,000 prison inmates shows less than 1 percent of criminals obtain weapons from gun shows. Similar studies -- such as one from the National Institute of Justice -- show similar results.

* Indeed, the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence does not stress individual sales at gun shows as a significant source of guns used in crime. Asked about the statistics cited above, a spokesman for the Brady Campaign noted a report from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives claiming gun shows are "a major trafficking channel" but said 60 percent of guns used in crimes come from just 1 percent of licensed dealers -- i.e., those dealers already expected to abide by background-check requirements. "The federal government is not going after the crooked dealers upstream," the spokesman said. "In fact, [it is] working to protect them." He noted that Congress rejected a request by the Bush administration to fund a system tracking the source of illegal guns.

* The Brady Campaign does cite other data, such as the fact that "only 50 to 75 percent of the vendors at most gun shows" are licensed firearms dealers. It does not mention that many of the other vendors do not sell guns at all -- but rather books, pepper sprays, swords and knives, storage safes, bumper stickers, clothing, hand-made leather goods, and vintage military paraphernalia such as WWII uniforms and (empty) ammunition boxes.

* The Brady Campaign cites another BATFE report to the effect that 10 percent of the guns used in crimes committed by juveniles were sold "at gun shows and flea markets." Roughly 9 percent of all gun crimes are committed by juveniles. Thus gun shows -- and flea markets -- account for about 1 percent of all gun crimes involving juveniles.

* But -- again -- the "gun-show loophole" applies only to those hobbyists and collectors who might be interested in selling granddad's WWII service sidearm, not to the majority of licensed dealers who, according to the Brady Campaign, constitute the bulk of the gun-crime problem. In short, private sellers of firearms constitute a vanishingly small share of the gun-crime problem in contrast to corrupt gun dealers, theft, and the black market.

Advocates of gun rights still must admit closing the "gun-show loophole" might produce a marginal reduction in the criminal use of guns though such a reduction could be wiped out by one large-scale theft such as the recent incident in Chesterfield. The Assembly must weigh this marginal reduction against the infringement of the right of law-abiding citizens -- what the Brady Campaign disdainfully calls "so-called private sellers" peacefully to exercise their right to keep and bear, and trade in, firearms.

Let's be clear: Most gun-show sales in Virginia occur through licensed dealers who already conduct background checks. Closing the gun-show loophole would place a serious encumbrance on individual rights, with little or no benefit to public safety. The Assembly is welcome to pass a bill anyway, if it is interested in making an empty gesture. If it is interested in reducing violence, it should turn its attention elsewhere.


California: Home intruder shot by occupant: "Greg Collins kept watch in his garage Wednesday night, two loaded shotguns by his side. He was on guard for thieves who had burglarized his Modesto home on Hackberry Avenue six times in three weeks. Collins fell asleep but was awakened about 5:26 a.m. by a loud crash when someone opened the garage door and a large box he had laid against it scraped across the floor. The intruder turned on the lights and walked into the garage, toward a large piece of plywood that covered tools. Still groggy from sleep, Collins grabbed a shotgun and told the intruder to freeze. 'He lunged at me,' explained Collins. 'I was very scared and I was panicky. He took about one step. I aimed low and shot him.'"

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