The U.S. Treasury Dept., responsible for federal firearms records through
its Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms (BATF), has published gun-sale
statistics substantially different from the widely publicized numbers the
Justice Dept. has issued. The data is particularly important since it plays
a critical role in determining the effectiveness of the Brady handgun control
law. Passed in 1994, the Brady law makes it a crime for felons to attempt
to purchase guns from federally licensed firearms dealers.
According to a high-profile Justice Dept. announcement, 186,000 gun
sales have been halted by the Brady law through last June (Associated Press
2/26/97). However, BATF claims only 44,000 denials four times less than
the Justice Dept. figures for the same time period. Meanwhile, President
Clinton, speaking at the Democratic National Convention, used the figure
60,000. Media reports failed to note the sharply conflicting figures.
More striking than the discrepancies, though, may be the lack of prosecutions
associated with the Brady law, which theoretically carries at least a five-year
federal felony sentence. According to BATF, there have been only seven
cases brought to trial, with four convictions. The Justice Dept. released
no comparable information in its report.
Treasury Dept. officials, speaking recently at the SHOT show convention
in Las Vegas, indicated that they believe the Brady law is designed to
stop illegal retail gun sales, not arrest felons who apply for guns. That
position undermines a recent announcement by Attorney General Janet Reno,
who noted that criminal arrests have dropped, even though 50,000 new police
officers have been hired nationwide.
The handgun-sale denials suggest a reason for the drop in arrests authorities
are holding the names and addresses of 134,000 known felons, on Brady-law
affidavits that amount to admissions of guilt, and no one has arrested
them. More than 11,000 of these were fugitives, the Justice Dept. says.
Nationally, FBI data shows that only 21% of reported crimes lead to an
arrest. Of 2.7 million burglaries in 1994, there were only 320,000 burglary
arrests. The statistics for other crimes are similarly dismal. Only a fraction
of those arrested are convicted, and even fewer actually serve jail time.
On its face, the Justice Dept. publicity release of 186,000 Brady stops
gives the impression that the law is working. But the notion that a crime
reduction program jails only one out of every 46,000 known criminals who
literally identify themselves and sign up casts doubt on the effectiveness
of the plan.
Critics have cited the near-complete lack of enforcement as one of the
biggest problems with the Brady law. Four convictions out of 186,000 incidents,
if the Justice Dept. numbers are correct, may set a record for the least
effective law enforcement program in U.S. history, according to FBI Uniform
Crime Reports. An estimated 8 million Americans were subjected to the Brady
paperwork and delays to obtain the four convictions. Some Information Is
Stories have proliferated about Brady sales denials which were later
reversed. An unknown number of citizens have been initially denied a firearm
by the screening process, due to similarities of names, record keeping
errors and bureaucratic problems. These sales were later allowed to take
place. A number of cases have been reported where authorities used the
Brady paperwork process illegally to collect parking tickets and other
civil fines. Bureaucratic problems have also been reported involving expired
dog and fishing licenses being used for denials.
The Justice Dept. announcement provides, for the first time, a breakdown
of why sales had been stopped, an important yardstick. No figures for denials-changed-to-approvals
are given (persons denied sales include felons 72%, fugitives 6%, state-law
violators 4%, persons under court restraining orders 2%, mental patients
1%, juveniles, drug addicts, aliens and local-law violators 15%).
In contrast, radio station KTUC-AM 1400 in Tucson, Ariz., reports that
in its study of 130 Brady stops in its area, all but four were later approved.
The numbers support the argument, touted by pro-rights groups, that
most criminals do not get their guns at retail. The Justice Dept. claims
that the total number of stops constitutes 2.6% of all gun sales, or four
times less than rights advocates have traditionally suggested. If the BATF
figure is the correct one, less than one percent of all retail handgun
sales are applied for by criminals.
According to the new Justice Dept. information, the chance of a criminal
being prosecuted under the Brady law for attempting to purchase a handgun
in a store is only one in 26,000. The chance of being convicted is less
than one in 46,000, if the Justice Dept. data is correct.
Forces on both sides of the issue have noted a drop in reported violent
crimes. Despite blustery rhetoric, it is unclear whether the drop reflects
reporting problems or actual decreases in criminal activity, the cause
of which is not established. Lack of facts has not stopped the anti-gun-rights
side from touting the Brady law as the cause, while pro-rights groups cite
the national boom in concealed-handgun licenses as providing the deterrent
The Bottom Line
News organizations across America had their credibility shaken again
when they featured the Justice Dept. press release and its implication
that the Brady handgun law is working. The uncorroborated announcement,
picked up and circulated without question by the Associated Press, fuels
the arguments of those who question the accuracy and neutrality of the
With 1,300 newspapers nationally now relying on one source AP wire service
releases instead of independently gathered and confirmed stories, fears
are naturally growing about control of the nation s news. Parade, the nation
s most widely circulated news magazine, made the believability question
its cover story in March, citing a survey that indicates less than 7% of
Americans fully trust the news they receive from the media.
Journalism observers generally believe that news organizations should
run corrections when they accurately report government publicity disdainfully
referred to by sceptics as propoganda which is later found to contain questionable
information. In practice this doesn t always occur.
The AP also included the oft repeated misconception that the Brady law
mandates a five-day waiting period, when in fact no such thing is actually
The experts now face numerous critical questions: exactly who will investigate
the conflict between the Justice and Treasury Departments? What are the
real numbers in the Bradygate case? Why is the Attorney General so excited
about a decrease in arrests, when there are so many known hard-core criminals
signed up for arrest but roaming the streets (and looking to buy a gun)?
And if the Brady program only jails one out of every two million citizens
it processes, is there a better way to apply limited law-enforcement resources?
Alan Korwin is a full-time free-lance writer and author of seven books
on gun law, including Gun Laws of America Every Federal Gun Law on the
Books with Plain English Summaries. Permission to reprint this article
is granted to non-profit organizations, provided credit is given to Alan
Korwin, Bloomfield Press, Phoenix, AZ. All others, just call us.