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Gun Control Urban Impact Statement

By Professor Jeff Fagan, Joseph L. Mailman School of Public Health

When candidates discuss gun policy and federal gun control legislation, they are making urban policy. For instance, cities throughout the country are affected by state-by-state differences in gun laws. As guns flow from weak law to strong-law states, they fuel markets in illicit guns in major cities in those states. Absent federal policy regulation on the manufacturing and the interstate commerce in guns, many cities will suffer. In addition, since gun homicides are heavily concentrated in cities, gun policies have a direct effect on the level of urban violence. Other factors like gun-specific demand-side enforcement -- such as urban street crime units -- disproportionately target minorities, creating secondary problems in police-community relations. That gun policies have such varied impacts on urban areas makes careful analysis of candidates' proposals on gun control ever more important.

Each of the candidates has staked out clear positions with respect to gun control. There is little difference among Republican candidates regarding the sanctity of second amendment rights of citizens to keep arms.

There are three consistent themes in their approach. First, these candidates see all proposals for regulation of gun sales or ownership as an encroachment on these rights, and a symbol of the dangers of government incursions on individual liberties. Second, they strongly prefer policies that attempt to reduce the illegal use of guns through the deterrent effects of tougher punishments when guns are used in the commission of crimes. Most decry the weak enforcement of existing laws, including the failure of the current administration to prosecute the 13,000 individuals who were denied guns due to lies in their federal background checks. Each of the Republican candidates prefers more concerted efforts to enforce existing laws rather than enactment of new regulations or additional laws. Third, they attribute recent school shootings in suburban and rural areas to cultural factors that motivate violence and weaken social controls. They link gun violence to social and moral problems and prefer policies that would reduce motivation to use guns rather than shrink their supply.

Nevertheless, there are important substantive differences even within this narrow policy band. John McCain affirms the importance of background checks for all commercial firearm sales, including instant background checks at gun shows and pawnshops, but opposes waiting periods while background checks are conducted. McCain prefers a solution whereby checks are instantaneous and police can be dispatched immediately to apprehend criminals attempting to purchase firearms. McCain also distances himself from these other candidates in his preference for safety devices such as "trigger locks" to protect children and stop intruders.

George Bush has expressed the most specific policy preferences, declaring that "gun control is not part of crime control" (August 17, 1999). He signed legislation in 1995 permitting citizens to carry concealed weapons in Texas. He is alone among the candidates in opposing suits by states and cities against gun manufacturers, a position consistent with his broader efforts to curb civil damages in tort litigation. Yet Bush also has adopted other, more moderate policy positions on guns and gun control, including support for: (a) background checks at gun shows (a reversal of earlier statements regarding Texas policy); (b) current ban on automatic weapons; (c) voluntary safety locks on guns; (d) a ban on the import of certain foreign made high-capacity ammunition clips; (e) an increase in the minimum age for gun purchases from 18 to 21 (August 27, 1999), and (f) automatic detention of juveniles charged with gun crimes. Bush also would ban possession of semi-automatic assault weapons by juveniles. He is consistent with his Republican rivals in emphasizing sentencing enhancements for crimes committed with guns, and departs from his rivals with specific proposals for increasing funds to improve the prosecution of gun-related crimes. Alan Keyes has issued no specific proposals on this issue.

Democratic candidates support policies that differ sharply from the Republicans, but differ little between themselves. Moreover, Bill Bradley and Al Gore are detailed in their proposals. Each has called for: (a) the elimination of cheap handguns, i.e. Saturday Night Specials; (b) limits on purchases; (c) instant background checks; (d) mandatory trigger locks and other safety devices; (e) zoning to restrict the point of sale of guns; (f) bans on gun ownership among persons convicted of domestic violence; (g) licensing of gun owners pursuant to safety instruction; and (h) sentencing enhancements for crimes committed with guns. Gore goes further by calling for a ban on assault weapons, and tougher penalties for illegal gun trafficking. Bradley would impose significant licensing fees on gun dealers, and use zoning restrictions to limit the areas where guns could be purchased.

The homicide epidemic that afflicted urban America since 1986 has waned considerably in the past three years, and has been replaced in the nation's consciousness by the rash of multiple-victim school shootings that have occurred in suburban or rural areas. Policy positions by the candidates generally draw from these more recent events, and this is especially true of the Republican candidates. Nevertheless, gun violence remains a predominantly urban phenomenon, and policies on gun control will have a far greater impact on urban areas than elsewhere.

On balance, the policy initiatives of all the candidates are more focused on demand reduction and purchase restrictions, rather than supply-side initiatives. The Democrats distinguish themselves from their rivals through more active policy proposals in the licensing of gun owners, and their tacit support for litigation to punish manufacturers for over-supply of guns that inevitably 'leak' into illicit urban markets. Only Gore has proposed explicit measures to curb illegal distribution.

Unfortunately, there is little sound empirical evidence of the effectiveness of initiatives focused on either supply or demand reductions, complicating policy analyses. There is some evidence of the contagious effects of guns in launching and sustaining epidemics of gun violence. Such evidence would argue for a more balanced policy model incorporating both supply and demand strategies.

Published: Feb 11, 2000
Last modified: Sep 18, 2002


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