The Ethical Spectacle, April 1995,

Where are the Illegal Guns?

Like most people, I have always associated the NRA with the slogan, "If guns are illegal, only criminals will have guns." In a time when many Americans, NRA members and otherwise, apparently sleep with loaded guns beside their beds, waiting for the day they may have to defend themselves against an intruder, the NRA slogan conjures the image of the attack occurring....but only the intruder has the gun.

The more you look into it, though, the more it appears that the intruder and the homeowner have both bought their gun from the same person. An illegal gun in the United States, unlike an illegal drug, is not one smuggled into the country or made in a basement laboratory; it is always a gun that began its odyssey with a legal sale by a gunshop to somebody, somewhere. The gun used to kill President Kennedy was purchased by mail through an ad in the Rifleman, the NRA magazine; the gun used to assassinate the Mexican presidential candidate last year was originally purchased in a California gunshop. Colin Ferguson purchased the semiautomatic he used to kill the Long Island Railroad Riders in a California gunshop too. Patrick Purdy, the killer of five Cambodian schoolchildren in a schoolyard, also bought his weapon legally in California, and Wayne Lo, who killed a professor and a student at his Berkshire, Mass. college, bought his semiautomatic at the same sporting goods shop where I buy my lures and bait when I am in that part of the country.

This last was a shocker when I read about it. I have often chatted with the guys behind the counter, who are friendly and helpful, and I have admired the guns in their store. I wondered how a gun salesman could ever live with the knowledge of having sold the weapon used in a mass murder, especially a semi-automatic, which is really designed to be used for that purpose and nothing else. Erik Larson, in his fine book of gun control advocacy, Lethal Passage (Vintage, 1994) , gives some insight. He believes that every gun dealer who has been in business any length of time has sold a gun to a murderer at least once, and knows it. He cites the case of Mike Dick, owner of Guns Unlimited in Carrollton, Virginia. Dick is a "good" gun dealer, one who has notified the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms (BATF) when suspicious people came into the store, and has cooperated with investigations. (BATF is hated by the NRA and has the strange honor of being the only federal agency excepted when the House passed legislation relaxing Fourth Amendment warrant requirements for all other Federal agencies.) Yet Dick has sold murder weapons to at least two murderers that he knows of: a fifteen year old boy who used it to kill a teacher at his school, and a deranged physician who used his randomly to murder and wound four strangers in Philadelphia:

"How did you feel when you heard about this?" I asked Mike Dick. "That this guy had taken the guns you sold him, even though you had doubts, and killed somebody...Did it cause you any sleepless nights?"


"Did you get drunk?"

"No. I did everything I possibly could have, short of compromising something I feel very strongly about. And that is, I'm not going to decide if you're a worthwhile person or not. He gave me red flags. I checked him out [without finding out anything]...But I'm not going to decide someone's character based on my impressions of him, I'm just not gonna do it."

Mike Dick had sensed that his physician customer was not all there. He had called the BATF, which had no record on him. No national database exists that would have told Dick that his customer had been dishonorably discharged from the Air Force, after being held in a psychiatric unit for violent behavior. So Dick, despite his own gut feelings, and also in spite of federal law that gives him wide discretion to refuse a sale, sold his customer two Colt .45's, which he used, ten days later to fire on his randomly selected victims.

BATF has an especially bad rap today, and with good reason, because of its bungling of the Branch Davidian and Weaver standoffs, and is exposed to cutbacks now from the Contract Republicans (who have all received NRA campaign contributions and know the organization's power.) Many or most gun dealers wouldn't cooperate with BATF as much as Dick has. Aside from state and local laws and regulations, nonexistent in some places and strict in others such as New York City, a gun dealer has few responsibilities. The potential customer himself fills out form 4473, answering questions regarding past convictions, mental health and drug use. The clerk may warn the customer that a yes answer to any of these questions--there are eight--means no gun. Form 4473 is kept in the store in case a crime is later committed with the gun. A copy is not sent to the government. (In John Milius' gloriously irrelevant movie of some years ago, Red Dawn, Soviet invaders are seen gathering Form 4473's from gunshops to determine who the local gun owners are.) If a customer buys several guns in a five day period, a multiple purchase form is filled out by the dealer and mailed to BATF. (Two of Dick's instances of cooperation with BATF happened after he mailed the agency such a form and they called him with questions.)

There is a closed feedback loop around guns, similar to the Cold War arms race. Since your local gun shop is almost certainly arming local criminals directly or indirectly (Guns Unlimited had numerous instances of mass purchases of guns for resale to felons, arresting in several arrests by BATF--after most of the guns were gone), to feel safe you must hie yourself to the gunshop and purchase your own weapon. As criminals and their "straw men" (those who buy guns on behalf of felons) trade up to greater firepower, you must do the same. And it never ends.

"When guns are illegal, only criminals will own guns." Where will they get them? We know where they are buying them today. Larsen also cites a 1992 BATF study revealing that 26% of guns recovered from crime scenes in New York City were purchased in Virginia, 19% in Florida, 11% in Texas, 9% in Georgia. We have now reached 55% of the guns, and we haven't seen one manufactured at home, or smuggled in from abroad, yet.

Of course, smuggling guns into the U.S. would be like carrying coals to Newcastle. A facile answer is to say that making guns illegal would create that commerce. Here is a modest proposal: let's try the experiment. We'll ask Scotty, on the Enterprise, to lock onto and beam all handguns and semiautomatic rifles up (we'll keep track of where they came fron, so we can return them later), and we'll ban any further manufacture of or commerce in these weapons for five years. At the end of five years we'll examine the track record. If gun violence in this country has not decreased by at least 80%, we'll return all the guns, repeal the laws and, in addition, give the NRA a twenty million dollar donation as a nice way of saying that we're sorry.

Here are some stats (also cited by Larsen) that tend to prove the foregoing point: In 1987, more than 3,000 men aged 15 to 24 were murdered with firearms in the U.S. (annual homicide rate in this age group was 21.9 per 100,000 people, three quarters of these gun murders). Canada, with about one-fifth U.S. population, had 17 gun murders in this category (overall rate, 2.9 per 100,000.) And Japan lost eight young men (overall rate 0.5 per 100,000.)

Is the NRA aggressively protecting our right to arm ourselves against felons, or is it mainly protecting the people who arm the felons-- and starting an arms race, in which the rest of us then get sucked up?

Here's another question which concerns me even more, on a personal level, since I am a New Yorker. Since all the murder weapons on the streets here are legally purchased in the South: why should I, my wife and my kid have to live frightened so that you can have your gun hobby?

In March, a man in Montclair New Jersey used a legally purchased Taurus 9 millimeter handgun to kill four people during a robbery of the post office where he had formerly worked. He had no prior criminal record.