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Chapter 10   Policy Actions The United States [is] the last major democratic nation to permit private citizens to possess guns with few meaningful restraints. —A. DeConde There are a wide variety of reasonable, feasible policies that could reduce the firearms injury problem in the United States. To explore such policies, it is first necessary to understand the history of federal firearms laws in the United States, and this chapter begins with a brief description of these laws. The second section discusses policy prescriptions for the firearms problem. An important first step is to increase the detailed information available about the circumstances of violent deaths and injuries by creating a consistent national statistical system. The last section of this chapter describes attempts to bring such a data system into existence. A Brief History of Firearms Law Current U.S. gun laws are complicated and filled with loopholes. State and local regulations vary greatly and are often ineffective in reducing gun crime because firearms can be moved easily across political boundaries. Two important federal acts dealing with firearms were passed in the 1930s. In response to the wave of gangland violence that occurred during Prohibition, Congress tried to stop the traffic in “gangster weapons.” The 1934 National Firearms Act appears to have reduced the use in crime of machine guns, sawed-off shotguns , and silencers. The 1938 Federal Firearms Act began the federal licensing of gun dealers, importers, and manufacturers. Dealers were required to keep records of transactions, and law-enforcement personnel were allowed to inspect these records (Sugarmann and Rand 1994). Three decades later, following the gun assassinations of John F. Kennedy, 209 Robert F. Kennedy, and Martin Luther King Jr., federal laws were passed banning the interstate shipment of handguns and long guns to individuals except through licensed dealers. In addition, only licensed importers were legally permitted to import firearms or ammunition. The results of these laws were mixed, as legions of people became dealers so that they could legally buy and sell guns across state lines; by the early 1990s, the United States had more than 270,000 dealers—more gun dealers than gas stations (Sugarmann and Rand 1994). The 1968 laws also forbade the transfer of firearms to proscribed individuals , including drug users and addicts, illegal immigrants, the mentally ill, and individuals convicted of domestic violence or crimes punishable by at least one year in prison. In 1986, the Firearms Owners’ Protection Act substantially reduced the already weak federal oversight over the distribution of firearms. Among other things, the law permitted firearms dealers to conduct business at gun shows in their own states, limited the number of unannounced federal inspections of dealers to one per year, and reduced the maximum penalties for dealers who knowingly made false statements. The law also made it less likely that collectors and others who sell guns in small volume would need to become licensed dealers. The law led to a rapid increase in sales at gun shows. The 1986 law also forbade the establishment of any system of firearms registration (common in most other developed countries). Its “relief from disability ” program expanded the categories of convicted felons who could have their gun privileges restored and allocated federal funds (typically more than four million dollars per year) to help former felons (including people convicted of rape, murder, drug dealing, gun trafficking, and child molestation) legally own firearms. This amount is more than 50 percent more than the maximum the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) was spending in the 1990s on firearms data collection and research. Funding for the “relief from disability” program was effectively ended in 1992. The 1986 law banned the importation of gun barrels for Saturday night specials. Federal law led to the rapid growth of the domestic manufacture of inexpensive handguns by setting safety and quality standards that applied to imports but not to domestic manufacturers. The 1986 law also banned the future manufacture of machine guns for sale to other than law enforcement or military personnel, freezing the number of fully automatic weapons available to civilians. Two other federal laws passed in the late 1980s tried to ban “cop-killer bullets ” and plastic firearms. In the 1980s police were increasingly wearing new 210 PRIVATE GUNS, PUBLIC HEALTH lightweight Kevlar “bulletproof” vests. Unfortunately, criminals were increasingly using armor-piercing bullets. A 1986 bill banned the sale of handgun bullets composed of specific hard metals (tungsten alloys, steel, brass, bronze, iron, beryllium, copper, or depleted uranium). Alarmed by the...


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