Many federally licensed firearms dealers selling weapons were making required background checks to be sure convicted killers weren't buying their wares. There were also unlicensed sellers and "collectors" wandering through the crowd, selling guns out of backpacks they'd brought from home. These sellers do not make any effort to determine whether their customer is a murderer on parole or an armed robber with a record longer than the semi-automatic rifle he has for sale. You see, among the diverse groups of hunters, collectors and law-abiding citizens concerned about personal protection at these gun shows, one other group relishes the vast section and ready accessibility of these firearms: criminals, murderers, rapists, armed robbers, drug dealers and gang-bangers all sample the array of weaponry at our tax-supported Tucson Community Center. That's not just my opinion. It's a fact. Study after study has shown gun shows to be arms bazaars for criminals.
Will requiring background checks by private sellers at gun shows solve all the problems of gun-related violence in our community? Clearly the answer is no. However, should we take steps to make it more difficult for convicted felons, people with histories of mental illness and gang members to get guns? Absolutely yes.
In the deadliest school shooting in United States history, two teen-aged boys in Littleton, Colorado, procured two shotguns, an assault rifle and a KEC-9 assault pistol which they used to kill 12 students and a teacher, before turning the guns on themselves. Subsequent Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms investigations found that all four of the weapons had passed through the hands of unlicensed gun dealers at gun shows.
Here in Tucson, the murder of three innocent victims at a Pizza Hut by two men under the age of 21 was the result of a gun purchase made from unlicensed "collectors" at a gun show.
Tucson gun shows were part of an ATF investigation that found a vendor selling guns to a Hispanic undercover agent after being told that the guns were to be smuggled into Mexico. According to the Arizona Republic, last year's Treasury Department investigation found that felons were associated with selling or purchasing weapons in nearly half of the gun-show investigations. The Republic also reported that during the 18-month ATF study, the Treasury Department identified gun shows as a "major trafficking channel" responsible for more than 26,000 illegal firearm sales, and many of those weapons were traced to subsequent crimes.
In January 1999, the Department of Justice and the Department of Treasury summarized: "Gun shows provide a large market where criminals can shop for firearms anonymously. Unlicensed sellers have no way of knowing whether they are selling to a violent felon or someone who intends to illegally traffic guns on the streets to juveniles or gangs. Further, unscrupulous gun dealers can use these free-flowing markets to hide their off-the-book sales."
Examples of gun shows as arms bazaars for criminals are overwhelming. For example:
· The Spokane Spokesman-Review reported that on September 6, 1997, Long Luangrath, a 19-year-old parolee who was prohibited by law from buying a handgun because he was under 21 and on parole, purchased a handgun at a Reno gun show without going through a background check. When he got home late Saturday night, the gun accidentally fired, fatally wounding his 3-year-old niece as she ran to greet him at the door.
· The Port St. Lucie News reported in September 1998 that an undercover sting operation in Florida broke up a statewide ring which used gun shows to illegally sell at least 441 firearms including machine guns.
· ABC News reported that Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh and his sidekicks Michael Fortier and Terry Nichols admitted to stealing $60,000 worth of guns from an Arkansas gun collector's ranch. Fortier then admitted that he sold many of the stolen weapons at gun shows.
· The Chicago Tribune reported in 1997 that California gun-dealer James Simmons illegally sold approximately 1,700 guns over a four-year period through gun shows. At least 200 guns were sold during an 18-month period to two purchasers, who then sold the guns to gang members and children. Simmons was finally caught when one of the guns was used by a gang member killed in a shoot-out by police. Since then, guns sold by Simmons have turned up in connection with at least 30 crimes in southern California, including three murders and at crime scenes in six states.
· This year, the Arizona Republic reported that the 18-month investigation of gun shows in Arizona and Nevada began in the fall of 1999 after surveillance officers followed a convicted murderer to a gun show and watched him buy a handgun. Moments later, they observed another convict purchase a weapon.
Arizona ranks No. 1 of all 50 states in firearm-related death rates for adolescents 15 to 19 years old. That's right: higher than the death rates in California or New York. In addition, Arizona leads the nation in death rates for firearm suicides of adolescents 15 to 19 years old. Often, these are impulsive acts that would not happen but for the ready availability of a handgun.
The requirement of a background check, like the requirement of passing through a metal detector at an airport, would be only a minor inconvenience to those law-abiding citizens who want to purchase a gun. However, such background checks will discourage people from buying guns to be used for mass sales to juveniles, felons or for other illegal purposes.
The failure to require background checks from private sellers penalizes licensed gun dealers. While an honest, licensed gun dealer must do a background check and sell to a person, an unlicensed dealer can sell without doing any background check.
Despite the endorsement of five prior presidents--Nixon, Ford, Carter, Reagan and Clinton--it took seven years for the Brady Bill to become law. In the five-and-a-half years since the Brady Bill became law, more than 600,000 prohibited purchasers--felons, juveniles and those convicted of domestic violence--have been precluded from buying guns. Shouldn't the same rules apply regardless of whether there is a private sale or a sale by a licensed dealer? I have to file the same paperwork with the Department of Motor Vehicles to register my car whether I buy it from a dealership or my next-door neighbor.
Let's not argue about Second Amendment rights. Under the longstanding interpretation of the Constitution, the Second Amendment only gives a collective right to bear arms to militias, not a private right to individual citizens. The gun lobby knows this; it is for precisely this reason that, with all their rhetoric about the Second Amendment, this issue wasn't even raised in the Arizona Appellate Courts when the gun lobby challenged the Tucson City Council's ban on guns in public parks. In fact, the Second Amendment argument was conspicuously omitted from their brief.
Moreover, even if there were a Second Amendment individual right to bear arms, it would obviously not be an absolute right. Like the right to free speech, which can be abridged to prevent people from yelling "fire" in a crowded theater, any individual Second Amendment right to bear arms would have to be subject to reasonable modifications. Otherwise, people would be allowed to own nuclear arms, missile launchers, machine guns and all other forms of military arsenal in their basement, simply because they are "collectors." It's time to forget about the Second Amendment debate and talk about practical solutions to the epidemic of violence in our community.
Finally, let's not argue that criminals will not obey the law and criminals will find other places to buy guns. If we are not going to make laws because people won't obey them, we might as well not have laws against murder, rape and drunk driving, for the simple reason that criminals will still murder, rape and drive their cars while intoxicated. Will the requirement of background checks end all gun violence in our town? No. However, will requiring private background checks reduce the gun shows' role as a swap meet for criminals? Most definitely.