July 3, 2001
This week the Brady Act, which requires background checks for gun buyers, received its most comprehensive report card to date. A study by the Justice Department shows that background checks by the F.B.I., as well as by state and local agencies, have barred criminals from acquiring guns hundreds of thousands of times. Praise for the law's performance — tempered by a proposal that would weaken it — came from none other than Attorney General John Ashcroft, who as a senator had long received campaign contributions from the National Rifle Association in appreciation of his stance against gun control. But truly clamping down on gun crime would require more legislative action.
The permanent version of the Brady Act, which mandates background checks before purchases of handguns and long guns from federally licensed dealers, took effect on Nov. 30, 1998. Since then, background checks have tripled nationwide. Of the more than 16 million checks triggered by prospective gun buyers in 1999 and 2000, 357,000 resulted in rejections — two-thirds of those because of indictments or convictions for felonies.
The Brady Act has also aided police in tracking criminals who use false identities and in fighting crime after the fact. The Justice Department's study includes results from half a dozen states that use the background checks to find suspects on outstanding warrants. Virginia led with 775 arrests last year, a whopping 30 percent of the state's 2,568 rejections. Mr. Ashcroft has vowed that federal prosecutors would reinforce this practice by arresting people who act illegally by trying to buy guns.
Despite praising the impact of the law, Mr. Ashcroft has proposed disabling this powerful crime-fighting tool by deleting the information generated by background checks from national databases after one business day rather than the current 90 days. He claims that the longer period somehow impinges on privacy, yet there are no such strict limits on how long other agencies and organizations — including the Internal Revenue Service, the Census Bureau, registries of motor vehicles or even private credit-rating firms — may hold onto similar, voluntarily provided information.
In its current form, the Brady Act seeks to keep guns out of the hands of criminals, leading to less crime, the law's backers hope, and fewer guns in households. But looking at the data from 1999 and 2000 separately reveals a possibly troubling undercurrent. Applications to buy guns from federally licensed dealers fell by 11 percent from one year to the next, but the number of applications rejected after background checks fell even faster, by 25 percent, and the percentage of those rejections that were based on felonies shrank by 23 percent.
A benign interpretation of these trends would be that fewer people felt the need to obtain guns as victimization by violent crime posted a record decline across the nation, and that criminals were deterred from applying for guns through registered dealers lest they be caught up in the background checks mandated by the Brady law. But there is a more sinister interpretation as well : criminals may be finding new ways to buy guns. Indeed, an estimated 20 to 40 percent of guns are sold legally without background checks, at gun shows and other events not covered by the Brady law. Whether bought at a specialty store or a trade fair, a gun is still a deadly weapon. Congress clearly needs to close this loophole in order to maintain the Brady Act's long-term benefits.
July 2, 2001
Fewer people tried to buy guns from licensed firearms dealers last year than in 1999, and most of those who were refused a purchase had felony convictions or indictments, new government figures show.
Altogether, background checks conducted under the authority of the Brady hangun law stopped 153,000 of the nearly 7.7 million prospective gun sales in 2000, the Justice Department's statistical agency reported Sunday.
Significantly fewer Americans tried to buy firearms last year, it said. Analysts attributed that mostly to the general decline in overall crime rates during the 1990s, saying that may have caused people to feel less need for self-protection weapons.
"These are the long-term positive repercussions of a lower crime rate," said James Alan Fox, criminal justice professor at Northeastern University in Boston. "People see that streets are safer and they are not as compelled to go out and purchase a gun."
Government researchers cautioned, however, that the overall decline in applications for guns does not necessarily mean fewer weapons were sold. In some states, they noted, people can buy more than one gun with a single application.
"It's not a measure of whether gun sales are up or down," said Lawrence Greenfeld, acting director of the Justice Department's Bureau of Justice Statistics.
Between 1999 and 2000, there was an 11 percent drop in the number of Americans who tried to purchase guns from federally licensed firearm dealers -- from 8.6 million to 7.7 million.
Nearly all the 19 states listed in the report as providing complete statewide data for applications and rejections in 2000 had declines last year; the largest were in Indiana (25.8 percent) and California (24.8 percent).
Nearly 58 percent of applicants rejected by state and local authorities had felony convictions or indictments, down from 73 percent in 1999, the report said.
The second most common reason for rejection was a domestic violence misdemeanor conviction or a restraining order. Those accounted for about 11,000 applications, or 12 percent of rejections.
Background checks to see if prospective gun buyers have criminal records have been required since February 1994 under the Brady Handgun Violence Prevention Act.
Through 2000, the report said, the FBI or state and local police had rejected 689,000 of nearly 30 million applications, or 2.3 percent, since the effective date of the law on March 1, 1994. That is compared with the 2 percent rate of rejection in 2000 and a 2.4 percent rate in 1999. The checks are done electronically.
Last year, the FBI processed 4.3 million applications and state and local agencies processed 3.5 million, the report said.
State and local agencies did not approve 86,000, or 2.5 percent of applicants; the FBI rejected 67,000, or 1.6 percent of those who applied in 2000.
Greenfeld, the Justice Department official, attributed the difference to state agencies' access to more detailed criminal history records than the FBI's. "They may have other databases they check that the FBI couldn't check," he said.
Attorney General John Ashcroft said the report shows that the Brady law is working, but more needs to be done to prosecute people who try to purchase guns illegally.
"While the Brady law has helped us stop convicted felons and other dangerous individuals from buying guns easily, violations of the law are not being prosecuted adequately," he said.
The 19 states presenting complete 2000 data, followed by the percentage change in applications from 1999 to 2000 where available :