By David Phinney
W A S H I N G T O N
Newspapers across the country screamed the bloody details with shocking headlines and graphic photos of seven dead mobsters mowed down by machine guns and automatic pistols.
The St. Valentines Day Massacre of 1929 brought the death toll in Chicagos gangster turf wars to 135 as they savagely battled over the lucrative profits of bootleg liquor during Prohibition.
America took notice. Realizing just how gruesome firearms could be in the hands of criminals, the wheels slowly began rolling to craft the first national gun-control laws.
But caught in a crossfire of arguments over Second Amendment rights protecting gun ownership, Congress moved cautiously. Only after a 1933 assassination attempt on President Franklin D. Roosevelt in Miami did Washington try to restrict the sale of sawed-off shotguns, machine guns and automatic weapons in 1934 and 1938.
Since then, a deluge of laws have swept the nation with more than 20,000 gun laws now on the state and federal books by most estimates.
The most significant federal laws have always followed in the wake of high-profile assassinations or shootings. Last Aprils high school massacre in Littleton, Colo., which left 15 dead, is no different.
Four short weeks after the shooting rampage by two teen-agers, the Senate passed a flurry of gun-control legislation, which calls for private sellers at gun shows to run background checks on buyers and which would require that all handguns be sold with trigger locks.
The House is expected to consider similar legislation sometime this week.
Still, the jury is out on how effective these laws are. Thousands of people die each year by gunfire.
Gun-control advocates say thats because each new gun law is only a partial fix that leaves gaping loopholes that allow easy access to guns for would-be criminals.
Others complain that access to guns has never been the cause of shootings. Many countries allow the sale of guns. Whats different in the United States, gun-rights advocates say, are the people who pull the trigger.
We just have a lot more violent crime than other countries, observes Paul Blackman, who tracks gun legislation for the National Rifle Association. And as far as crime is concerned, gun-control laws as a group are a total failure in affecting violence.
Many dispute that claim. After President Clinton signed the Brady Handgun Act into law in 1993, 250,000 felons, fugitives and others were prevented from purchasing handguns over the next five years.
We think the Brady Law was a major factor in reducing violence, says David Bernstein of the Center to Prevent Handgun Violence.
So does the Department of Justice, which credits recent gun-control laws and an increase in firearm prosecutions as major reasons for a 27 percent drop in gun-related crimes between 1992 and 1997.
Too Complex, Incremental?
Nevertheless, both critics and supporters complain that most gun laws are too complex and written so as to bring about only incremental efforts in reducing gun violence.
The things have become as complicated as tax laws, complains Chuck Michel, legal counsel for the California Rifle and Pistol Association Inc., which has been fighting gun-control laws on the local and state level in California.
The Golden State has been a leader in enacting local gun laws. Forty cities approved bans on the manufacture and sale of cheap junk guns, which sell for an eye-popping price of as little as $79. Law enforcement authorities claim they are some of the most frequently traced pistols and often used in crimes.
The states of Maryland, Hawaii, Illinois, Minnesota and South Carolina have similar junk gun laws and the California lawmakers recently approved statewide legislation that is expected to be signed by Democratic Gov. Gray Davis in the near future.
Its too early to know what sort of effect such laws may have. Michel calls it the Goldilocks approach. This one is too big, this one too small. No gun is just right, he has noted.
Many argue that the last thing needed is more gun laws. California has 700 gun laws on the books, according to Michel, and they do little to reduce violent crimes.
We dont need more federal laws, we need to enforce the ones we have, says the NRAs Paul Blackman. Crime, he says, is a problem for law enforcement.
Landmark National Gun-Control Laws:
The National Firearms Act, 1934: Support for the first national gun law ignited during the Roaring 20s and Prohibition as a way to stop widespread mobster shootings and turf wars. The law aimed to cut down on ownership of machine guns and sawed-off shotguns by slapping a $200 tax on their purchase. That was a lot of cash during the Depression and prohibitively expensive, but today, the tax is peanuts.
The Gun Control Act, 1968: Following the assassinations of Martin Luther King Jr. and presidential candidate Robert Kennedy, Congress rushed to ban the sale of mail-order guns and place minimum safety standards on imported guns to raise their purchase price. No standards were adopted for U.S.-manufactured guns, however, and the law helped spawn a huge domestic gun industry that turns out cheap handguns now known as "junk guns" and "Saturday Night Specials."
The Brady Handgun Act, 1993: Mandates a five-day waiting period and background check for buying handguns. The law followed the shooting of President Ronald Reagan and his press secretary Jim Brady in 1981. More than 250,000 felons, fugitives and others have been denied a sale of a handgun since the law was enacted, but the country also witnessed an exponential growth in purchases at gun shows and flea markets, where background checks are not required.
S U M M A R Y|
Every major gun law has followed assassination attempts or mass shootings, but many say they are full of loopholes.
C O M I N G U P:
WEDNESDAY: Using the Courts
THURSDAY: Gun Safety and Education
FRIDAY: A Violent Society