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Gun Lobby Doesn’t Really Mean “Enforce the Laws Already on the Books”

By Mayor Richard M. Daley of Chicago


We learned something interesting in Illinois last year. The gun lobby doesn’t really mean it when they say that all we need to do is enforce the laws already on the books.

For the last five years, Illinois had been enforcing a law that made it a felony to unlawfully carry a weapon. The year that law took effect, our gun confiscation dropped 27 percent — because people learned that carrying a gun was no longer like stealing a pair of jeans from Sears. It could land you in prison for up to three years.

Then, last December, the Illinois Supreme Court declared that law unconstitutional on a technicality. And because of opposition from the gun lobby, we have been unable to get that felony provision back on the books – despite the support of the governor, the attorney general, chiefs of police, my fellow mayors, a majority of legislators and, according to the polls, the vast majority of the citizens of Illinois.

The gun lobby says enforce the laws already on the books. But they’ll weaken those laws whenever they get the chance.

The same sort of thing has happened at the federal level.

We all applaud President Clinton’s recent proposal to hire 500 new ATF agents and inspectors and 1,100 new prosecutors to fight gun crimes.

The number of ATF agents has remained virtually the same for the last 25 years, despite the increased number of guns in circulation. Yet the number of DEA agents has almost tripled in that period.

In Illinois, there are only 11 ATF inspectors to deal with 2,100 federally licensed gun dealers.

But if we expect the new ATF agents and inspectors to be effective, Congress must restore the power it took away from the ATF in 1986.

That was when Congress passed the Firearms Owners Protection Act, also known as the McClure-Volkmer Act. The law was designed by the gun lobby to keep the ATF from doing its job – and it has succeeded.

This law:

  • Limits inspections of gun stores to one per year. And that visit has to be announced in advance.

  • Prohibits any centralized registry of firearms sales data.

  • Says a dealer can have his license suspended for selling guns to criminals or straw purchasers only if he does so “knowingly and willingly,” which is almost impossible to prove, and places no burden on the dealer to exercise reasonable care.

  • Prohibits ATF agents from sharing what they learn during compliance inspections with local law enforcement agencies.

  • Makes it difficult to determine whether a dealer is subject to federal regulation.

The McClure-Volkmer Act weakens law enforcement in many other ways too numerous to mention in a short time. It is a prime example of how the gun lobby says, “Enforce the laws already on the books,” and then makes it impossible to do so.

Our own undercover investigation in Chicago showed that gun dealers will sell firearms even when they know the buyers are criminals. That investigation formed the basis for our $433 million lawsuit against the gun industry, which will be in Cook County Circuit Court February 10 for oral arguments.

And a recent study by researchers at Northeastern University showed that less than one-half of one percent of gun dealers sell nearly half of all guns used in crimes.

We have to do something about irresponsible dealers. It’s not enough to wait until another person has been killed, and then put the murderer in jail. We could prevent many of those crimes if Congress would give our law-enforcement agencies the power to shut down disreputable gun dealers. And not a single law-abiding gun owner or gun dealer would be hurt.

So in addition to pursuing our remedies in the courts, we need to push our Senators and Congressmen to restore the powers it took away from ATF 14 years ago.

And while they’re at it, they should pass a law limiting gun purchases to one a month. The only people who would be hurt are the straw buyers who purchase guns in bulk for criminals.

There will be many setbacks along the way. But that has been true of every worthwhile endeavor, from civil rights to protecting the environment to regulating tobacco.

We know we will win eventually, because the people are on our side. Every single poll shows that the majority of Americans favor reasonable regulation of firearms — and that’s all we’re asking.

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U.S. Mayor

Home Search jwelfley@usmayors.org

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