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June 22, 2009

The Myth of the "Black Market"

The cities of Washington, D.C. and Chicago have been under siege in recent months by the National Rifle Association (NRA), which is attempting to overturn gun laws in both jurisdictions.

The NRA’s battle with Chicago has been in the courts, where the gun lobby is seeking to have the Supreme Court’s Second Amendment ruling in the case of D.C. V. Heller incorporated at the state level. This would have the practical effort of repealing Chicago’s handgun ban. After the 7th Circuit Court of Appeals rejected the NRA’s lawsuit, it appears headed to the Supreme Court on appeal.

D.C. v. Heller, of course, already repealed the District of Columbia’s handgun ban, but the Supreme Court’s ruling did not go far enough for the NRA. They are now seeking to have the city’s new, constitutional gun laws repealed through an amendment that was initially attached to the “D.C. House Voting Rights Act” by Senator John Ensign (R-NV). That bill has yet to be considered by the House of Representatives, and the amendment’s next likely target is the D.C. appropriations bill, which Congress will likely take up this summer.

Time and time again, the NRA has blamed violence in the two cities on their tough laws, despite evidence that shows that criminals are totally unable to acquire firearms inside Chicago and Washington. So why is it so easy for criminals and gun traffickers to get firearms outside the borders of cities? A fascinating new essay by David Kairys, a professor of Law at Temple University, provides some answers.

The essay, entitled “Why are Handguns So Accessible on Urban Streets?” is a chapter in the new book Against the Wall: Poor, Young, Black and Male. Kairys argues that we need to avoid a “pervasive acceptance and strange sense that the extraordinary level of death and killing is a normal or inevitable aspect of life in urban America,” and that only after understanding why guns are so readily available in cities can we begin to correct the problem.

Kairys explains that “the market makes new handguns so easily available—often for less than one hundred dollars new, right out of the box—that it makes no sense to steal one.” In fact, “anyone who does not have a record can go to a licensed gun store in most states, legally buy as many handguns as he or she wants, and walk out the door with them.” Kairys also points out that there are no “meaningful limits on the resale of handguns,” because private individuals, unlike federally licensed gun dealers, are not required to run Brady background checks on purchasers.

In Kairys’ words: “The bottom line is this. Under federal law and the law of most states, any person so inclined can buy huge quantities of cheap, easily concealed handguns and sell them to others indiscriminately, often without violating any law and usually without having to worry about getting arrested, prosecuted or convicted. Nor are the identities of owners of handguns, or the persons to whom they transfer ownership, registered or maintained by government, unless state law so provides—and most do not.” Capitalizing on this weak regulation, gun manufacturers produce “more guns than could be sold to law-abiding people,” knowing full well their product will be distributed to criminals and other prohibited purchasers downstream.

So what can we do to address this problem? Kairys advocates for registering handguns and licensing handgun owners; adopting strong, clear and specific “straw purchase” laws that make all of the parties to a straw purpose criminally and civilly responsible; limiting multiple purchases of handguns in a given period; and providing large urban areas with the authority to regulate handguns within their borders. All of these measures would help to reduce the flow of handguns to criminals on America’s streets.

But most importantly, we must learn to overcome our own misconceptions of the problem. As Kairys writes, “the common image of an underground, illegal market is largely fictional.” The ability of dangerous people to easily obtain guns is the result of our weak gun laws, which do little to regulate the firearms industry. The good news? Significant progress can be made in reducing gun violence as soon as our elected officials are made to realize that “the loss of life, the economic and social costs, and the undermining of the safety and the quality of life in America are unacceptable.”

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