Bullets and shell casings fired from a handgun contain unique markings—like fingerprints—which can be used to link specific handguns with gun crimes. Law enforcement can use these markings to determine if a specific bullet or shell casing was fired from a specific firearm. Ballistics or gun fingerprinting proposals require that handguns be test-fired before they are sold, and that its unique “fingerprints” be entered into a computer database that will be accessible to law enforcement.
Two states, New York and Maryland, have recently enacted legislation that requires newly sold handguns to be test-fired before they are sold in order to permit the collection of spent bullets and/or shell casings. Two firearm manufacturers, Smith & Wesson and Glock, are currently installing a system to produce digital images of ballistic material for all handguns produced. Each company will maintain its own database that will be accessible to law enforcement.
- The actual handgun used in a gun crime is rarely left at a crime scene, making gun tracing impossible. However, shell casings and bullets are often found at crime scenes. Ballistic fingerprinting will increase law enforcement’s ability to link guns with gun crime events and find and lock up criminals.
- Ballistic fingerprinting is a de facto registration system for handguns. Law enforcement will have a register of all handgun owners, which could possibly be the first step to confiscation of all lawfully owned handguns.
- Implementing the recordkeeping associated with ballistic fingerprinting would be expensive and wasteful. The state would have to develop and maintain a large database of spent bullets and cartridges, most of which will never be used in crime.
- Ballistic markings from bullets and shell casings can be altered easily, thereby rendering the “fingerprints” useless.
- No data on public support is available at this time.
Although it may be more difficult for a child to open a bottle of aspirin than to fire a gun, Congress has expressly forbidden the Consumer Product Safety Commission—or any other national government agency—from regulating firearms. As a result, toy guns and teddy bears are subject to more manufacturing oversight than handguns.
American-made guns are one of the few consumer products specifically exempt from consumer product safety regulations (imported firearms are required to meet certain safety standards).
Proposals have been put forth to apply consumer product safety regulations to the firearm industry to require uniform quality and safety standards for American-made guns.
- Just as the re-engineering of cars has contributed to dramatic declines in motor vehicle fatalities, subjecting gun manufacturers to safety regulations would be an important step toward preventing accidental gun deaths.
- Federal law requires imported handguns to meet minimum safety standards; handguns produced in the United States should be subject to the same standards.
- Guns are designed to inflect injury and death and therefore, the notion that a firearm can be made “safe” stands against the very nature of the product.
- New safety standards will cause the price of handguns to increase making handguns too expensive for the poor to own.
- New safety measures may lead to a ban on pre-existing handguns that do not meet the mandated level of safety.
- Sixty-eight percent (68%) of Americans—and 64% of gun owners—say they support government safety regulations for the design of guns. Ninety-four percent (94%) believe handguns made in the U.S. should meet the same safety standards applied to imported guns.
SOURCE: TERET ET AL., 1998
Litigation against the Gun Industry
As passage of gun safety legislation has been continually stalled in the Congress, some advocates of gun safety have turned to lawsuits against the gun industry to try and force new safety feature requirements for firearms.
One approach these lawsuits have taken is to sue the industry for negligence in failing to manufacture guns with available safety features.
Under this approach, a number of people have brought suits against specific gun manufacturers on behalf of deceased family members who were killed accidentally. The suits claim that the manufacturer could have—and should have—incorporated well-known and available safety features into the design of the gun that would have prevented death.
Currently, some municipalities have sued the gun industry for failing to incorporate existing safety features that would prevent certain accidental deaths or failing to develop “smart guns.” In March 2000, Smith & Wesson, the nation’s largest handgun manufacturer and producer of 20 percent of handguns sold in the United States, agreed to institute a series of safety and business practice reforms, in exchange for being dismissed from some of the municipal lawsuits.
- The technology exists to make handguns safer and reduce the number of accidental deaths that occur each year due to firearms.
- Since some of the technology to make guns safer has existed for many years, it is apparent that only litigation will force the industry to adopt such technology.
- Developing safety gun technology, such as “smart guns,” could help reduce the number of firearms available in the illegal market by making stolen guns unusable.
- Handguns are designed to kill and no technology can make them safe.
- Safety features that cause a firearm to function improperly can prevent a gun owner from responding quickly to an emergency, thereby causing loss of life.
- Proper firearm education programs can teach firearm owners how to properly handle their firearms further regulation of the manufacturing of guns is not needed.
- The cost of litigation will eventually lead all handgun manufacturers to cease producing guns effectively leading to a ban on the sale of handguns.
- Litigation will also drive up the cost of purchasing a firearm and will deny the poor of the right to own a gun.
- Approximately 40 percent of those surveyed said that they believe their city or state should sue gun makers to force stricter safety measures from the industry.
SOURCE: SMITH, 2000
“Smart” guns—or personalized guns—are guns designed to be fired only by the gun’s owner.
They may reduce the likelihood of unintentional firearm injuries to young children, adolescent suicides, firearm injuries or crimes inflected by criminals who wield stolen guns, and firearm injuries to law enforcement officers whose guns are seized in a struggle.
There are a number of technologies in existence that can be used to personalize guns. In general, gun manufacturers have refused to invest in and develop personalized guns. However, state and federal legislation has been introduced that would require the development and production of personalized guns.
- “Smart” guns will reduce unintentional firearm injuries by suicides by unauthorized users such as young family members by making it impossible for them to operate such guns.
- “Smart” guns can also prevent gun deaths and injuries from stolen guns; as such guns are inoperable by the thief (more than 500,000 guns are stolen from homes each year).
- “Smart” guns are more effective than trigger locks and other removable devices because they provide passive, automatic protection. The gun is normally in a locked position.
- The technology does not yet exist to make 100 percent foolproof personalized guns commercially available.
- The cost of “smart” guns will be prohibitively high, pricing poor families out of the gun market.
- A mandate to require “smart” guns will lead to the confiscation and destruction of non-“smart” guns.
- Seventy-one percent (71%) of Americans polled—and 59 percent of gun owners—support legislation requiring manufacturers to personalize all handguns sold in the U.S.
SOURCE: TERET ET AL., 1998
Trigger locks are gun safety locks designed to prevent a gun’s trigger from going off accidentally. Trigger lock models currently available include keyed devices, combination locks and alarms. There is currently no national law requiring trigger locks for firearms.
The Consumer Product Safety Commission recently found that many of the locks currently on the market could be defeated by children. If you have children living in or visiting your home, you should carefully research the safety features of your locking device. While there is no national safety standard for gun locks, the State of California recently adopted very stringent standards for locks that must be met in order for the lock to be sold in California. A list of locks that have been tested and approved is available at http://caag.state.ca.us/firearms/fsdcertlist.htm.
- Trigger locks are an inexpensive way to prevent guns kept in the home from being operated by unsupervised children, and therefore will help reduce the unintentional firearm deaths and suicides occurring each year.
- Legislation requiring that trigger locks be provided with every handgun sold is needed to maximize the number of families using these locks.
- Since there are no federal standards on trigger locks, the quality of products vary greatly and, in some cases, guns with locks that make the trigger inaccessible can still fire, if loaded. Some can be easily broken or otherwise overcome.
- A trigger lock will increase the time it takes a gun owner to respond to a self-defense emergency.
- Nearly three-quarters of Americans support a requirement that trigger locks be used for all handguns.
SOURCE: SMITH, 2000
Background Checks for All Gun Purchases
The Brady law requires that all licensed gun dealers conduct a background check on all gun purchasers. There is a significant loophole in this law, however, in that unlicensed dealers are permitted to sell guns at gun shows, through the internet, and in private sales without performing any type of background check.
The loophole has a real impact on the ability of kids and criminals to have access to guns. Guns used in the Columbine shooting and the day care center shooting in Granada Hills were purchased through unlicensed dealers at gun shows—without background checks.
Proposals have been offered to close this loophole in its most visible context—gun shows, where both licensed and unlicensed dealers gather. Other proposals would go further, mandating that all gun sales—even for guns that are sold by private sellers through the newspaper, for example—be subject to background checks.
- The Brady Act has made significant gains in improving gun safety by preventing more than 500,000 prohibited persons from purchasing guns through the use of background checks.SOURCE: GIFFORD ET AL., BUREAU OF JUSTICE STATISTICS, 2000But this effort has been significantly hampered by the gun show loophole and other inadequacies in the law, which prevent background checks from being run on all gun sales.
- Requiring background checks at gun shows and for private sales would be very difficult to enforce. Therefore, the non-licensed dealers that are conducting these sales have no incentives to obey the law. Furthermore, there is no effective way to monitor whether or not background checks are being completed on private sales.
- Eighty-one percent of Americans polled believe all handgun sales should be subject to a Brady background check and a five-day waiting period.
SOURCE: SMITH, 2000
“One-gun-a-month” proposals prohibit the purchase of more than one gun each month by the same purchaser. These laws are designed to reduce illegal trafficking in handguns by preventing traffickers from purchasing multiple handguns at a single time.
Several studies conducted by the federal government have concluded that areas with “strong gun laws,” such as New York, California and Chicago, Illinois, are flooded with handguns by traffickers who purchase large amounts of handguns from “weak gun law” states.
For example, one survey reported that 94.2 percent of crime guns recovered in New York City were originally purchased in another state (Youth Gun Interdiction Crime Gun Trace Analysis Report).
In an attempt to reduce interstate trafficking of firearms, four states (California, Maryland, South Carolina, and Virginia) limit sales of handguns, with limited exceptions, to one handgun a month per customer. These laws can affect interstate trafficking because they make it more difficult for traffickers to purchase multiple firearms legally in one state so they can transport these firearms to another state with stricter gun safety laws, for illegal sale there.
- Current laws leave states that seek to regulate the sale and possession of firearms vulnerable to illegal guns flowing into their communities from states that do not regulate firearms.
- One-gun-a-month laws will reduce the illegal traffic in handguns, by preventing traffickers from purchasing multiple handguns at a single time.
- Studies have shown that one-gun-a-month laws work. Virginia’s one-gun-a-month law made it 36 percent less likely that in certain states guns associated with a criminal investigation would be traced to Virginia gun dealers rather than to dealers in southeastern states.
- Transporting a firearm across state lines and re-selling it without a federal firearm license is already a crime.
- There is no evidence that imposing a limit on the number of guns a person can buy has definitive benefits, such as a reduction in violent crime, for citizens of states that enact such laws.
- Eighty-one percent of Americans favor limiting handgun purchases to one per month.
SOURCE: TERET ET AL., 1998
for Handgun Purchases
A waiting period is a mandatory “cooling off” period imposed between the time a person purchases a gun and is permitted to take possession of the weapon.
At its inception, the Brady Law required a 5-day waiting period to purchase a handgun. However, in 1998, the 5-day period was replaced with an instant background check.
More than ninety percent of all Brady background checks are performed instantly. In the remaining cases—where the instant check reveals a potential problem that may prohibit the purchaser from owning a gun—the gun purchase may be delayed no more than three days while records are reviewed.
While there is no longer a national waiting period to purchase handguns, some states have chosen to impose their own waiting period. The waiting period is also referred to as a “cooling-off period” because the time lag required before receiving the gun could serve to reduce the impulsive violent use of firearms. Currently, seventeen states impose a waiting period during the purchase of a firearm. These waiting periods are generally 1 to 7 days.
- Waiting periods can help reduce firearm violence by hindering a person who, enraged or distraught to the point that he or she cannot make rational decisions, wants to purchase a firearm to exact revenge on someone or commit suicide. A waiting period will allow time for this person to calm down and possibly react to the situation confronting them in a non-violent manner.
- In some cases, background checks cannot be performed within three days—the maximum amount of time for a check allowed under current law. Mental records are often not computerized, for example. Therefore, it is possible that someone with a mental health history may legally purchase a firearm without those records being completely reviewed.
- There is no evidence that laws delaying handgun purchases have any effect on crime or firearm suicide.
- A waiting period is a hindrance to lawful firearm purchasers.
- Eighty-one percent of Americans want both a background check and a five-day waiting period before the purchase of a handgun.
SOURCE: SMITH, 2000
Concealed Carry Laws
Concealed carry laws permit gun owners, under certain conditions, to carry a concealed loaded weapon in public.
These laws were passed in response to concerns that only criminals were carrying concealed loaded weapons and that law-abiding gun owners have the right to protect themselves.
While there is no national law addressing the concealed carry of weapons, most states have passed laws allowing citizens to carry concealed weapons in public after obtaining a permit from law enforcement authorities.
- Passing concealed carry laws will lead to criminals being confronted with more and more armed victims. This will lead to increased deterrence to criminals and a reduction in crime.
- Publicity surrounding the passage of concealed carry laws will deter criminals from committing armed crime for fear of being confronted with an armed victim.
- There is no evidence that passing concealed carry laws leads lead to an increase in successful self-defense uses of handguns.
- Petty and street criminals are generally not aware of new laws passed in the state legislature, and therefore will not be deterred from crime simply because a relaxed concealed carry law is passed.
- Widespread, immediate access to loaded handguns, which is encouraged by concealed carry, increases the risk that an argument will escalate to firearm violence or that a personal crisis will trigger an impulsive suicide.
- 56% of Americans believe that CCW permits should be issued only to those who can prove “special needs” to carry. The public is sharply split, however, on the basic questions of whether concealed carry weapons make life safer—by allowing citizens to arm themselves against potential criminals—or more dangerous by increasing the number of armed persons.
SOURCE: SMITH, 2000
Licensing Handgun Owners
There is currently no national law requiring licensing of handgun owners. While proposals vary, licensing would generally require that all new, would-be handgun owners obtain a license showing they have passed a safety test and undergone a criminal background check in order to purchase or possess a handgun. Although there is no federal licensing requirement, five states have passed legislation requiring handgun licenses.
- Licensing will improve gun safety by requiring all gun purchasers to go through safety training. Because a number of gun deaths occur each year due to unsafe handling or storing of firearms, safety training will help reduce the number of unintentional and teen firearm deaths.
- A licensing system would effectively close the “gun show loophole,” by requiring that all gun owners go through a criminal background check—no matter where that purchase takes place.
- It is common sense that if we require licenses for owners ofnon-lethal products like cars, that we should require that deadly weapon owners are also licensed, too.
- Handgun owner licensing could eventually lead to the registration and confiscation of all handguns, as some claim it has in other countries.
- There is no evidence that safety training will reduce unintentional and other deaths. Gun owners may choose not to follow safe behaviors, even though they have been taught them.
- Eighty-five percent of persons surveyed believe new, would-be handgun purchasers should be required to undergo gun safety training. Sixty-eight percent would extend this requirement to current handgun owners.
SOURCE: SMITH, 2000
Registration of Handguns
Currently, there is no federal requirement that handguns be registered. Proposals would require that all handguns be registered to their owner in a system similar to the registration of automobiles. Registration would provide a paper trail on each handgun as it is transferred from owner to owner.
- Registration of handguns would greatly enhance the ability of law enforcement to track handguns used in crimes and reduce handgun trafficking.
- Registration would provide the necessary incentive for unlicensed sellers to perform background checks and to report stolen guns, so that they are not personally associated with the subsequent use in criminal activity.
- Registration is a common sense approach to reducing the flow of illegal weapons. Guns like automobiles or other potentially deadly products are uniquely dangerous and it makes sense that their sale or transfer ought to be recorded.
- Registration of handguns is the first step to confiscation of lawfully owned handguns.
- Registration would be ineffective in stopping gun crimes, as it would not pertain to the 65 million handguns already in circulation.
- Eighty percent (80%) of Americans questioned favor mandatory registration of handguns.
SOURCE: SMITH, 2000
Repealing State Preemption Laws
The majority of states have passed some form of state preemption laws with regard to the regulation of firearms. Generally speaking, these state preemption laws forbid local communities from passing firearm laws that are more stringent than those governing the state as a whole.
If a state has not passed a gun preemption law, cities of that state are free to enact measures to regulate firearms. For example, the absence of a state preemption law in Illinois allows the Township of Morton Grove to ban possession of handguns within city limits.
In light of gun safety law gridlock at the national level, some cities are interested in enacting their own ordinances to promote gun safety and seek the repeal of state preemption laws as a means to restore local control over firearm policy.
- The firearm injury experience of different areas—rural, semi-rural, suburban and urban—differ greatly. Municipalities need the freedom to address their particular aspects of the firearm issue as they see fit. This may sometimes mean enacting stronger legislation that exists at the state level.
- Local jurisdictions should have the right to self-legislate.
- The inconvenience imposed on transients is outweighed by the potential benefits of addressing local aspects of the firearm issue with local legislation.
- Where no uniform state laws are in place, the result can be a complex patchwork of restrictions that change from one local jurisdiction to the next. It is unreasonable to require lawful gun owners, whether residents of a given state or persons passing through or visiting a state, to memorize a myriad of laws, at the risk of potential expense and confiscation of their firearms.
- No data on public support is available at this time.
Tough prosecution of criminals guilty of gun crimes is one strategy law enforcement is using to help battle gun crime.
Project Exile is a program that maximizes the penalties for gun crimes by providing for the prosecution of gun crimes in federal court, where criminal penalties tend to be harsher than in most state courts
Project Exile originated in Richmond, Virginia, and has been instituted in Newport News, Virginia; Philadelphia, Pennsylvania; and Rochester, New York.
In addition to providing for federal prosecution of all gun crimes, Project Exile also provides for mandatory sentences for illegal firearm possession and denial of bond for those arrested on firearm charges.
- There is some evidence that programs such as Project Exile have had an effect in reducing the population of armed criminals in Richmond. Authorities there contend that Project Exile helped cut homicide rates by 36 percent (New York Times, 1999).
- Knowing that gun crimes will be prosecuted under the harshest penalties allowed will serve as a strong deterrent for would-be gun criminals.
- Tough prosecution of gun criminals will do little to stop overall gun violence while loopholes in current law—like the gun show loophole—are allowed to go unaddressed.
- Project Exile is expensive to implement. Federal prosecutions cost approximately three times as much as local prosecution of gun crimes.
- Project Exile is inherently racist because it is only being implemented in urban areas with heavy minority populations. Therefore, suspects arrested under Project Exile—usually minorities—are prosecuted under stricter standards than white suspects from outlying counties accused of committing the same crimes.
- More than three-quarters of Americans questioned believe the use of a gun during commission of a crime should result in a doubling of the sentence.
SOURCE: SMITH, 2000
Safe Storage Laws
“Safe Storage Laws” require the safe storage of guns around children. These laws are also known as Child Access Prevention or “CAP” laws.
These laws make adults criminally liable if a child obtains their improperly stored guns and uses them to commit violence. Seventeen states have enacted such safe storage or CAP laws.
- Safe storage laws encourage gun-owning families to store their guns in a way that protects their children from accidentally shooting themselves or others, using their parents’ gun to commit suicide, which is a leading cause of youth mortality.
- There is some evidence that passage of safe storage laws is associated with a reduction in accidental firearm deaths among children under 14.
SOURCE: CUMMINGS ET AL., 1997
- Safe storage laws are not necessary since accidental child firearm deaths represent such a small fraction of all gun deaths (about 1.5 percent).
- The passage of safe storage laws will not reduce firearm deaths and injuries but rather impair people’s ability to use guns in self-defense.
- The actual prosecution of parents whose child uses their parents’ gun to kill himself or herself or another child is rare. Therefore they cannot be considered a deterrent.
- More than three-quarters of persons polled support making gun owners liable if a child misuses an improperly stored gun.
SOURCE: SMITH, 2000
Support for New Policies to Regulate Firearms: Results of Two National Surveys. New England Journal of Medicine 339(12):812-818, 1998 Sept.
2000 National Gun Policy Survey of the National Opinion Research Center: Research Findings. National Opinion Research Center: University of Chicago, 2000.
Background Checks for Firearm Transfers. (Bureau of Justice Statistics bulletin, June 2000, NCJ 180882) Washington, D.C.:U.S. Dept. of Justice, Office of Justice Programs, Bureau of Justice Statistics, 2000.
State Gun Safe Storage Laws and Child Mortality Due To Firearms.Journal of the American Medical Association, 278(13) 1084-86, 19