Midnight on Sunday sounded the death knell for Virginia’s 19-year-old one-handgun-a-month law that had pleased as many gun-control advocates as it had angered Second Amendment activists.
The law, originally signed into law by Governor L. Douglas Wilder in 1993, was the first to be modeled after a similar law that had come into effect in South Carolina in 1975. Maryland became the third state with such a law in 1996, California the fourth in 1998, and New Jersey joined in 2009. The reasoning behind these one-handgun-a-month rules was that, ostensibly, authorities could limit the number of straw purchases that resulted in inter (and intra) state gun trafficking by curtailing “bulk” pistol purchases by legal buyers. A straw purchase is when an individual legally allowed to purchase a firearm buys one or more firearms in order to turn around and sell or give the weapon to someone who either cannot legally obtain a firearm or does not wish to obtain one through legal, oftentimes traceable channels.
According to some, such as the Pennsylvanians Against Trafficking Handguns Coalition, these laws worked extraordinarily well:
Virginia’s law has greatly disrupted the gun trafficking pattern from Virginia to states in the northeastern United States. For guns purchased after implementation of the new law that were recovered in the Northeast, Virginia’s share fell by 54% – to 16% of all guns traced back to the Southeast.
Helen Fahey, U.S. Attorney for the Eastern District of Virginia, backed this up, saying, “Since passage of the [One-Handgun-Per-Month] legislation, instances of gunrunning have decreased dramatically.”
Why, then, have both South Carolina (in 2004) and Virginia repealed their versions of these laws, and why have so few additional states adopted them? As is often the case, it’s because there are also other statistics at play here. The “Don’t Lie for the Other Guy” campaign, led by the BATFE, the NSSF, and Department of Justice, notes two important counter-facts, the first being that according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, less than 8.5% of criminals obtain firearms from straw purchases, and:
According to the ATF, the average “time to recovery” (the time span between the initial purchase of a firearm to the time that it is used in a crime) is more than 10 years. This tells us that criminals are using older, recycled firearms, not newer firearms bought from licensed retailers. So, unless you believe that criminals are buying firearms only to use them a decade after the purchase, it is clear that straw purchasing is not a common method for criminals to obtain guns.
There’s another issue too. In a report from Mayors Against Illegal Guns in September 2010, it was shown that California and Virginia, both of which had one-handgun-a-month laws at the time (and California still does), still numbered in the top ten interstate “crime gun” suppliers in the United States in 2006, 2007, 2008, and 2009. Meanwhile, states like Utah and Colorado, where not even a permit is necessary to purchase a handgun, were both below the national average for crime gun exports per capita in 2009, ranked all the way down at 31 and 32, respectively.
Perhaps because of a focus on these last statistics, or the fact that the repeal was led by a very Second Amendment-friendly legislature, there has been little outcry at the end of Virginia’s one-handgun-a-month law. Former Governor Wilder was, according to the Associated Press, pensive about the law’s demise: “You consider what’s going on in neighborhoods these days – the mass killings and the number of guns, almost all of them handguns – the question becomes, `Is anyone still trying to do anything about it?’” In all fairness, part of the reason for the comparative lack of vocal gun-control voices on Sunday was that the law had already been partially defanged a few years ago; the Virginia legislature had previously not only exempted CPL holders from the one-handgun-a-month limit but had also already eased “court discretion” over the issuance of CPLs to legal, qualified citizens.
At the very least (and because no one knows for sure what, if any, impact the repeal of this law may have on gun crime), Virginia handgun buyers won’t, by default, have to worry quite so much about their purchasing habits for the foreseeable future.
Image from user BankingBum on the Wikimedia Commons