Handgun purchase limit is worth a shot

At worst, Mayor Rahm Emanuel's proposed law limiting retail firearms customers in Chicago to one handgun purchase every 30 days will be a futile, ineffective gesture — one finger in a dike that has sprung hundreds of leaks.

After all, the current limit is zero — the city has no retail gun shops — and evildoers don't seem to be having a terribly difficult time finding heat to pack.

Traffickers import weaponry here by the duffel bag. And straw purchasers help supply the gun needs of those who for one reason or another aren't eligible to go to the suburbs and stock up.

Preventing Chicagoans from legally buying any more than 13 pistols a year without leaving town seems unlikely to crimp any thug's lifestyle, much less reduce the levels of carnage on our streets.

But still.

Researchers have found a statistically significant correlation between guns used to commit crimes and guns purchased in bulk.

A 2007 University of Pennsylvania report to the National Institute of Justice found that a quarter of all guns used in crime were purchased as part of a multiple-gun sale, and that guns purchased in bulk were "up to 64 percent more likely" to be used for illegal purposes than guns purchased individually. Further, "guns sold in multiple sales also had an elevated risk of being recovered ... from someone other than the last registered buyer."

The U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives reported that 40 percent of the guns recovered at crime scenes in New York were purchased in Virginia, before Virginia passed a one-gun-in-30-days limit in 1993. That figure had dropped to 17 percent by 2009 (though opponents of the limit point out that the raw number of crime-guns flowing from Virginia to New York remained relatively constant).

A 1996 analysis published in the Journal of the American Medical Association concluded, "restricting handgun purchases to one per month is an effective means of disrupting the illegal interstate transfer of firearms."

Nevertheless, such restrictions have not proved popular. Virginia and South Carolina have repealed their 30-day limits, and they're in place now only in California, Maryland, New Jersey and the District of Columbia.

Brian Malte, senior national policy director of the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence, said that while his organization supports such laws, it's hard for social scientists to analyze their effectiveness because they're often implemented at the same time as other gun-control measures.

Gun-rights groups are opposed, naturally. Though it seems their opposition is far more principled than practical.

Why would a law-abiding citizen need to buy more than a gun a month — or need to own more than a few guns total — to exercise his or her constitutional right to self-protection?

That's my question. But it's the wrong question, said Illinois State Rifle Association Executive Director Richard Pearson when I asked him about the proposed 30-day limit, part of a package of regulations that the Emanuel administration is grudgingly offering after the federal courts ordered the city to allow licensed dealers to operate.

"The question is, what right does the city have to tell people who pass a background check that they have a limit on their civil rights?" Pearson said. "It's like saying you can have too much free speech. All this will do is hurt law-abiding citizens."

Probably not much, actually. There's no real mechanism for enforcement in the city proposal — gun shops won't share purchase records, so citizens will pretty much be on the honor system as they go from shop to shop.

So why bother? Because, at best, the local limit might encourage state lawmakers to adopt the idea, one they have rejected several times over the years. And then the limits might spread — to nearby states and then federally, where they might actually realize the important goal of limiting the number of guns getting into the wrong hands.

The limit will do little but to symbolize that goal. But that's got to be enough for now.

Comment on this column at chicagotribune.com/zorn.

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