By JOHN J. MCCARTHY
Gun control: moving to the home front
With the rise of violent crimes and assassination attempts, the issue of handgun control is on the agenda for debate. Is owning a gun a personal right? Or a societal danger? With federal action ineffective to control handguns, anti-handgun groups are moving the battleground to state and local governments
THE DAY AFTER President Reagan was shot, House Speaker Tip O'Neill told his colleagues not to expect any handgun control legislation this year. Five weeks later Pope John Paul II lay in critical condition in a Rome hospital while U.S. Rep. Tom Railsback (R., Rock Island), a senior member of the House Judiciary II Committee, admitted, "It will be very tough to get handgun legislation through this Congress."
What O'Neill and Railsback know is that the gun lobby already is way ahead of the anti-handgun groups. The gun lobby is surely one of the strongest single-issue pressure groups in the country and while it clearly represents a minority, it is a minority that sends post cards when it is told to and speaks in unison when it lifts its voice. Those who want to see handguns controlled could well take lessons from gun lobbyists, and there is some evidence that is occurring.
While the Congress fretted, a pair of the country's strictest handgun control proposals reached the floors of the New Jersey and Connecticut legislatures; Chicago hosted one of the biggest anti-handgun rallies in U.S. history; and the National Alliance of Handgun Control Organizations held its first conference. The national anti-handgun groups got the message: the fight for handgun controls begins at home.
"We're spending as much of our time, efforts and finances as we can on the state and local campaigns," said Mike Beard, executive director of the National Coalition to Ban Handguns. "Congress won't take the initiative on this issue unless it comes from the ground up."
According to Kathy Zartman, president of Illinois' Chicago-based Committee for Handgun Control, local groups want three things that have up to now been denied them in Washington: the opportunity to build grass roots support, show politicians that gun control is a politically viable issue, and notch the victories that every movement needs to maintain interest and popular support.
In Illinois, however, the victories won't come easily.
Gov. James R. Thompson contends the state has enough handgun laws already and supports more stringent enforcement of those laws, something he thinks could be accomplished if "citizens. . . take their responsibility in the judicial selection process more seriously." State Rep. Michael Getty (D., Dolton), a member of the House Judiciary Committee, which passes on all proposed gun legislation, thinks state and local handgun control campaigns only dilute national efforts.
Even the Chicago Tribune, a strident supporter of a strong national gun registration law, labels anything less than comprehensive federal handgun control "virtually pointless." The Bloomington Pantagraph has backed tough penalties for handgun crimes, police review of gun owners' applications, and a 10-day handgun buyers' waiting period, but editor Harold Liston terms a handgun ban at the state level "impractical."
Federal gun control
Much of the skepticism about strong state gun controls undoubtedly springs from the failure of state and national gun laws already in force. Many of them are stunning examples of legislation so mitigated by compromise that only the illusion of a solution remains.
The federal Gun Control Act of 1968, for example, the most recent of three national firearm bills passed since 1934, was supposed to deny guns to minors, convicted felons, mental defectives and drug addicts; control interstate traffic in firearms and ammunition; and end the importation of small, cheap handguns "unsuitable for sporting purposes," like the notorious "Saturday night specials."
The act has a few problems. One is that registration requirements govern only the gun's initial purchase from a licensed dealer. No one knows the total number of firearms in any particular community because no one keeps track after the first sale. According to federal law, any private handgun owner who wants to sell his gun may legally do so to any other private individual, no matter what that person's police record, drug record or mental state may be, as long as the buyer convinces the seller that they both live in the same state. These largely unregulated
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private transactions make up 30 to 50 percent of all gun sales. The feds maintain no centralized listing of gun purchases.
The law's attempt to control interstate firearm traffic relies upon compliance from commercial gun dealers, but a commercial license is so simple and inexpensive to get that the U.S. Treasury Department's Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms (ATF), which administers and enforces the act, admitted in 1975 Congressional testimony that less than 30 percent of its 180,000 licensees actually ran bona fide businesses, making effective enforcement nearly impossible.
Dealers licensed under the act don't have to verify the buyer's personal data, so credentials can easily be falsified. To submit false credentials is a felony punishable by up to five years in prison, but according to ATF spokesman Les Stanford, "it happens all the time."
It happens because there's no one to enforce the act. In fiscal year 1979 ATF spent a total of only eight man-years policing more than 35,000 dealers in their nine-state midwest region.
The act's ban on cheap, foreign-made handguns originally cut imports by more than 25 percent; but, because the ban did not affect the importation of handgun parts, guns entered the country in pieces and were simply assembled in the U.S. And since the manufacture of cheap domestic handguns was not limited by the act, the handgun market soon revived and prospered.
Faced with all these problems, Stanford admits that "The deterrent effect of the '68 Act is certainly limited."
Illinois' gun laws
Given the federal government's handgun control mess, several states, including Illinois, have attempted to tackle the problem themselves. The Illinois state legislature, for example, has passed laws which prohibit federally licensed gun dealers from selling, manufacturing, or delivering Saturday night special type guns to an unlicensed person; requires a three-day and one-day waiting period before receiving handguns and long guns, respectively; bans unauthorized carrying of a concealed weapon; and requires each firearm owner to apply for and carry a Firearms Owner's Identification (FOID) card. The FOID card application process, the centerpiece of Illinois' gun laws, was designed to prove that the applicant is over 21, has no history of narcotics addiction, and has not been committed to a penal or mental institution in the last five years. In general, this is the same kind of firearm purchasers' information the federal government demands but does not verify.
The hitch, as pointed out by Timothy DaRosa, assistant chief of the Bureau of Identification of the Illinois Department of Law Enforcement (DLE), is that the applicant does not have to apply for the card in person and the DLE computer only checks the applicant's name against a list of "ineligible" persons. Applicants can submit phony names and addresses and receive valid FOID cards. Of the 200,000 firearm owners who annually apply for a FOID card, DLE's computer catches 3,000 to 4,000 cheaters every year. But no one knows how many of the state's 1.3 million current cardholders are actually eligible.
DaRosa suggests that FOID card abuses could be nearly eliminated if applicants were required to apply in person, show several forms of identification, and be fingerprinted. He estimates that a verified fingerprint check system would cost the applicants about $5 per year. Currently gun owners pay $5 every five years for their FOID cards.
Several proposals for fingerprinting gun owners were introduced in the Illinois legislature this session by Rep. Carol Mosely Braun and Sens. John D'Arco and Earlean Collins, all Chicago Democrats, but their bills met with resounding defeat.
FOID statute prosecution is compromised, according to DaRosa, because the crime is only a Class A misdemeanor. Police and prosecutors, concerned primarily with major crimes, give it reduced priority. Though estimates of the number of illegal firearms in Illinois exceed 200,000, in 1979 Illinois police arrested only 1,033 persons for carrying or owning a firearm without a valid FOID card. Statewide conviction statistics are not available.
Some Illinois municipalities have attempted gun control by passing ordinances that meet or surpass the state's registration requirements. In fact, 10 Illinois cities require a written permit from the police department to purchase a firearm, another 26 demand permits for handgun purchases only, three outlaw handgun sales and three prohibit all firearm sales.
Though well intentioned, the problem with local gun laws is that you can always buy what you want somewhere else in the state. If the Evanston police chief won't allow you to buy a derringer, go to Des Plaines or another town.
In Chicago, for example, home of at least 400,000 legal and illegal handguns, all firearms must be registered.
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Due to extremely tight purchase requirements, it is virtually impossible to buy a handgun in Chicago. So gun owners buy them legally outside the city limits and then register them with the city.
Because federal investigators concentrate on major firearm cases and DLE's Bureau of Identification has no FOID enforcement unit, the local police bear most of the responsbility for enforcing gun laws. They also face the consequences if the gun laws are not enforced. Perhaps that's why Chicago police have found their own way to
In short, Illinois' gun registration laws don't stop violent crime. Tied to tragically ineffective federal firearm provisions and weak enforcement policies, they're part of a whole system of toothless statutes. The recent handgun attacks on prominent individuals, however, have sparked growing interest in more significant state and local controls. Three of the most controversial legislative proposals concern mandatory sentencing for gun law violators, bans on handgun possession, and extension of municipalities' home-rule power to enact gun control ordinances.
Mandatory sentencing bills usually are aimed at deterring handgun felonies. State Sen. William Marovitz (D., Chicago) sponsored S.B. 1051, which won unanimous approval in the Senate Judiciary II Committee and provides Illinois' best example of this strategy. It would set a mandatory three-year prison sentence for anyone convicted of using a firearm in the commission of a crime. In other words, it proposes to increase sanctions against crimes that already have not been staunched by one of the most severe sentencing schemes in the country.
Handgun control proponents might argue that Marovitz' bill aims at the wrong crime. They would hold that if poorly enforced laws do not dissuade someone from carrying a handgun, he will eventually find himself drunk and upset enough to use it in a spontaneous murder, assault or robbery. So, control advocates say, make and enforce tough penalties that prevent him from carrying a handgun it may be almost impossible for the criminal justice system to prevent him from using it.
In 1975, Massachusetts passed a tough law targeted at handgun carriers. It set a one-year mandatory sentence for anyone convicted of carrying an unlicensed handgun and heralded the law's passage with a $2 million advertising campaign explaining it and warning ominously of the certain one year in prison.
In an evaluation of the law's first two years, the Center for Applied Social Research at Northeastern University found that handgun homicides in Boston dropped by 55 percent while overall criminal homicide decreased by 39 percent. They attributed much of the reduction to the mandatory sentencing bill. Researchers also found a "widespread weapons substitution effect" as former gun carriers switched to other, less lethal weapons. But surprisingly, Glenn L. Pierce, assistant director of the Center, believes the most effective aspect of the bill was not
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the harsh sentencing, but the fear-inducing advertising that preceded it.
"The people of Massachusetts were not afraid of the actual threat of prosecution," Pierce comments, "but the perceived threat of prosecution."
In fact, since 1975 less than 40 Bostonians annually have been sentenced to the year in prison, causing Pierce to question the long-term gains of the law as Massachusetts' citizens realize that their chances of imprisonment are remote.
Apprehensions have also surfaced about mandatory sentencing in general.
Legislators tend to set such severe mandatory sentences that state's attorneys often hesitate to prosecute, preferring to plea bargain the charge to an offense with a less strict penalty. Mandatory sanctions also increase prison populations which, in Illinois, have already surpassed capacity.
"It's madness," wails Franklin E. Zimring of the University of Chicago's Center for Studies in Criminal Justice. "We don't know whether mandatory sentences for handgun crimes are effective or not, but I do know that you don't try a one year mandatory sentence before you try a one day mandatory sentence."
That's exactly what East Cleveland, Ohio had in mind when they began assessing fixed five-day sentences for persons convicted of carrying concealed weapons. Though researchers have not yet published their findings on this strategy, initial data indicate that local judges and prosecutors have levied the prescribed penalties equally and often.
The most controversial and least politically feasible legislative alternative is a complete ban on handgun possession. No state or local jurisdiction in the country had passed such a law, until Morton Grove did in June. This "ultimate" form of handgun legislation first startled Springfield last spring when, soon after Reagan's shooting, the Senate Judiciary II Committee voted along straight party lines to pass Sen. John D'Arco's bill banning handguns statewide. But the bill soon died on a 16-34 floor vote. And the legislature next moved to preempt Morton Grove and any other city from a complete ban on handguns, but this attempt was postponed.
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A phalanx of procedural and enforcement problems would follow the passage of any "ban bill." Besides the immediate Second Amendment legal challenges, state or local governments would have to consider the just disposition of huge numbers of legally acquired handguns already in existence which in many cases represent significant personal investment for their owners. Probably about 20 percent of Illinois households have a minimum of one handgun. A state "buy back" program for these 800,000 weapons would certainly cost more than $60 million.
An enforceable, effective handgun ban would have to be preceded by a dramatic reduction in handgun demand. Without it, compliance would probably be minimal and a flourishing black market in the sale and importation of handguns would ensue. Due to the widespread disregard for the law, enforcement and sentencing would be haphazard and unequal.
Though the chances of passing a handgun ban without overwhelming public support are slim, control supporters realize that without such support the problem would remain.
"Until Americans get rid of those handguns or fail to acquire new ones," Zartman of the Committee for Handgun Control acknowledges, "until that's the prevailing opinion, we will have a terrible handgun problem."
Though state Rep. Barbara Flynn Currie (D., Chicago) ritually introduces a handgun ban bill every legislative session, there's little chance that Illinois would adopt a handgun prohibition without a series of intermediate steps. One of those could have been H.B. 570, introduced by Rep. Harold Katz (D., Glencoe) and authored by Franklin Zimring, but defeated in committee months ago. It would extend the home rule powers of a municipality so that the sale of a handgun in Illinois would be governed by the local ordinance of the buyer's residence rather than the seller's. In other words, an Evanston resident could not go to Des Plaines or any other city to buy the derringer denied him by Evanston's chief of police.
The key to Katz' bill is enforcement, which is why backers of the proposal have recommended a companion bill that would put handgun dealers under liability clauses similar to the "dramshop" laws that hold bartenders liable for the actions of patrons they have served to the point of inebriation. In the case of handgun sales, gun dealers would be liable if they sold handguns illegally to buyers who then used them to commit crimes including the crime of illegal handgun possession. Gun control supporters feel that a dramshop provision would allow the Katz bill to almost enforce itself.
In justifying strict local laws, handgun control supporters often cite the recent study of the U.S. Conference of Mayors' Handgun Control Project, which found that Washington, D.C. experienced a 26 percent drop in fire-arm homicides after it froze the number of legally owned handguns in 1977. A follow-up analysis by the U.S. Department of Justice also suggested that the District's handgun statute reduced handgun homicides. The department, however, stopped short of an absolute endorsement and called for a more detailed review of the law's effectiveness.
The gun lobby counters by blaming "social factors" for crime fluctuations and disputes the research techniques of their opponents.
Regardless of the laws and the studies, fear and the need for protection will remain, especially in high crime areas.
"The real violence is. . . in the ghettos," says University of Illinois sociology professor David Bordua. "Carrying a gun in those areas may be statistically irrelevant as protection. It may be personally stupid. But in those areas why is that personal stupidity more stupid than relying on an irrelevant public safety stupidity like the Chicago Police Department?
"If you take away their guns you've got to give them something else. . . Now what are you going to give them?"
During the summer a special handgun control subcommittee of the Illinois House Judiciary II Committee will hold public hearings throughout the state on the gun control issue and specifically the eight bills currently before the full committee, including a revised edition of the Katz bill and a reworked Currie handgun ban proposal. As the chairman, Rep. Emil Boucek (R., Western Springs), and his subcommittee make their way around the state, they will have the opportunity to meet face-to-face one of the most influential and successful political coalitions in Illinois the gun lobby.
"There's about 15 gun collectors' groups in the state," says Les Field, the legislative representative for the Illinois Gun Collectors Association. "I'm not sure how many total members we have."
Field did mention, however, one gun organization based in Olney called "Citizens Fighting Gun Confiscation," which he says has a membership of "35 to 40 thousand." In comparison, Illinois' Committee on Handgun Control, the largest state and local anti-handgun organization in the country, has a slightly smaller membership.
Nationally, state gun collectors' clubs and rifle associations can count on a membership of nearly five million, and the NRA has over one and a half million members. No matter how many there are in Illinois, they've made an impact. When D'Arco's ban bill sailed through committee, it made
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the front page of Gun Week, a national weekly newspaper for gun enthusiasts. A few days later, the state legislators felt the full impact of the democratic process.
"I got so many letters on D'Arco's bill. . .," says Boucek, "and we [the House] didn't even have the bill."
State Rep. Peg Breslin (D., Ottawa) had one letter in favor of the bill and "three to four hundred" against.
"I've never seen any subject generate such interest," said freshman representative and Judiciary II Committee member Jill Zwick (R., Dundee). "They filled up pads of telephone messages. I don't know why it means so much to them."
Rep. John Cullerton (D., Chicago) remarked, "I talked to one NRA guy who thinks this flap over D'Arco's bill is good. He said they hadn't pulled out their mailing list in six years and this gave them an excuse."
The gun lobby, of course, is not omnipotent. Former Illlinois Congressman Abner Mikva, a bitter enemy of the gun lobby, beat them regularly though they spent lavishly to unseat him. Dozens of other congressmen throughout the country have overcome NRA opposition in the last several elections. The gun lobby has simply harnessed and organized their supporters so that what represents a minority viewpoint intimidates the majority.
And the gun lobby is the minority. Over the last 20 years, national public opinion surveys have indicated a consistent 60-70 percent of the country backs tougher controls on the sale of handguns. A 1980 Gallup poll found that 68 percent of non-gun owners and 48 percent of gun owners favored enhanced controls. In the process of determining that approximately 20 percent of all American households own at least one handgun, the Gallup poll revealed that 42 percent of non-handgun owners and 18 percent of owners would support a law prohibiting handgun possession.
To date, however, the gun lobby's-solid single-issue politics has state representatives' attention. They know that the pro-gun letter writers will not only "vote the issue" but could also be moved to work against legislators who vote contrary to the lobby's wishes. The typical gun control sympathizer, on the other hand, is much less single-issue oriented and cannot be counted on to either vote or work for a pro-control politician. Anti-handgun sympathizers are not an organized, committed faction that politicians may fear alienating.
Some anti-handgun supporters, notably Pete Shields of Handgun Control, Inc., have called for a counterbalancing singlemindedness in the control camp, but in Illinois no such strategic consensus has been reached.
Why do so many feel the need to own a handgun?
In Pawnee, Illinois (pop. 2,500), cut out of the soybean fields south of Springfield, they sit at Herbie's Cafe and they're afraid. "We got two cops but we need 20," says farmer Wayne Lederbrand. "They spend all their time catching speeders rather than looking for burglars and robbers."
"Take away your guns and you've lost the last line of defense," Pawnee engineer Ed Campbell believes.
Why do others feel handguns should be controlled?
On June 6, in a bar at night, Chicago's deputy police superintendent is shot to death. The accused killer is a well-educated businessman who allegedly carried an illegal concealed handgun for protection.
Who has a solution? The individual who chooses to use a handgun or the government legislating control?
John J. McCarthy is a Chicago-based freelance writer and a consultant for the John Howard Association.
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