Many on both sides of the gun-control debate see the issue in almost exclusively ideological terms. If one favors the principle of gun control, passing any pro-control legislation is considered a victory, and any step away from government regulation of guns is a setback. For anti-control forces, any cutback in regulation is a positive step toward that promised land where ownership and use of guns by ordinary citizens is beyond the reach of government.
From this symbolic perspective, the gun lobby has won a significant if qualified victory this time around. Congress is about to send the President its first major gun-control law in 18 years, and its thrust is toward deregulation.
The prospects for effective control of firearms in the United States are certainly not enhanced by this legislation. But neither are they crippled if the bill passed by the House, rather than the blunderbuss Senate decontrol, becomes law. In fact, the deregulatory changes in some areas leave room for tougher enforcement in one increasingly critical area: the control of handguns on our city streets.
To understand the changes about to be passed by Congress, we must remember that firearms control has always been the primary responsibility of states and localities rather than the federal government.
At the state level, gun-control policies vary widely: A very few jurisdictions attempt tight control of handguns; others have few controls on the ownership and use of handguns or long guns; most states attempt to keep all firearms away from high-risk groups, such as minors and convicted felons. In addition to these state laws, most municipalities have adopted their own controls. Big cities have been especially active in this in the last 15 years.
The primary role of federal law, in the Gun Control Act of 1968, has been to help states and localities that seek to help themselves. That law has not been changed in its prohibition of private ownership of bazookas, submachine guns and other "destructive devices," or in its curtailment of cheap handgun imports--the so-called Saturday-night specials. The new law does ease regulations affecting dealers, and lifts the ban on the sale of rifles and shotguns--but not handguns--to persons who reside out of state.
This legislation is a great symbolic victory for gun owners opposed to both the principle and inconvenience of federal firearms legislation, but the practical effect of the changes will be modest.
Despite deregulation, every major regulatory strategy of the 1968 legislation remains in place for handguns. And the potential for regulating handgun dealers remains substantial. If handgun control is the priority topic, as most gun-control proponents insist, then the new law provides almost the same powers to support state and local handgun-control efforts as its predecessor legislation did.
The new legislation also does not substantially hamper federal gun control because the current federal contribution to firearms control in the United States is not great. The 1968 law provides only modest tools to combat the illegal movement of guns from loose-control states to tight-control states. It does nothing to assist intrastate control of suburban and rural firearms sales to city residents. Moreover, the federal resources invested in controlling the flow of handguns have been modest throughout the life of the 1968 act. Thus the new regime will not water down the federal regulatory presence that much, because it was pretty thin soup already.
The final reason why moderate decontrol at the federal level is not the death knell of gun control is that the crucial arena for legislation will continue to be at the state and, of particular importance, city levels. This has been the case for many years, and would have remained true if Ronald Reagan had stayed west of the Mississippi. While interstate and intercity traffic in handguns is a major frustration of state and local control efforts, this problem is inherent in the Gun Control Act of 1968; it is not the special progeny of this new law.
This is where the testing ground for gun control will be in the 1990s: on the street.
If Congress and the Federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms use this new law as an excuse to pull back from helping states and cities control the illegal flow of handguns, the polar divisions about firearms control will continue. In this scenario the already small resources devoted to the enforcement of federal gun laws will be cut further still, using the reduced scope of federal responsibility as the excuse. Congressional oversight will diminish, on the ground that the new legislation makes enforcement of the federal law less important. If this happens, it will vindicate those who see any deregulation of ownership and use of guns as a step away from effective gun control.