After Aurora: how easy is it to buy a gun in the US?
In Colorado, where a gunman shot and killed 12 people last weekend, you don’t need a state permit to buy a firearm. In Arizona you can legally carry a concealed weapon. Will the US ever crack down on its gun laws?
THE JOHN JOVINO gun shop is nestled between an Italian restaurant and a juice bar on Grand Street in Little Italy. Most of the shelves contain NYPD paraphernalia, T-shirts and sweaters, and only at the back are the guns visible: a pile of small pistols, and four long hunting rifles, locked to the wall.
An inquiry about the weapons elicits a brusque reply from the grey-haired man behind the counter. “Six month, eight month, 10 month to get a licence.”
New York city is one of the hardest places in the US to obtain a gun licence. Its mayor, Michael Bloomberg, has asked repeatedly for more regulation across the country. After last week’s mass shooting in Aurora, Colorado, he challenged Barack Obama and Mitt Romney to do something about gun control. “Maybe it’s time that the two people who want to be president of the United States stand up and tell us what they are going to do about it, because this is obviously a problem,” he told listeners of a local radio show.
The 314 million people of the United States between them owned an estimated 270 million civilian firearms in 2007, according to an international study of gun ownership, the Small Arms Survey. James Holmes’s alleged attack on the audience at a midnight screening of The Dark Knight Rises came after he had bought all of his weapons legally.
Gun laws vary across the 50 states. In Kansas, Colorado and Louisiana, for example, you don’t need a state permit to buy a shotgun, rifle or handgun, according to the National Rifle Association. In Arizona you don’t need a licence to carry a concealed weapon in public. A Texas resident, “if not otherwise precluded by law, may purchase rifles and shotguns, ammunition, reloading components, or firearms accessories in contiguous states”.
And a private individual can sell a personal firearm to an unlicensed person in the same state – a loophole that means many gun sales go entirely unregulated.
News reports have described how Holmes stockpiled ammunition that he bought online. That would have been easy, because no federal oversight exists for ammunition sales, and transactions are not recorded. Websites such as ammunitionstore.commake far-reaching promises: “Quick and Easy. No uploading or faxing is required for most States.” If offers wish lists and gift certificates, along with various deals – 200 belted M60 rounds cost $129.99: you save $30. This site also sells machine-gun parts and accessories.
Mike Campbell, a spokesman for the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, outlines the legal situation. “Under federal law, there is no limit as to how much ammunition one person can purchase.” No identification is needed under federal law to buy ammunition. Dealers who sell ammunition only do not need a licence, and the only type of ammunition subject to regulation is amour-piercing rounds (most commonly used in military situations).
In the US, gun control and its opposite, gun rights, are enormously emotional subjects. “America’s idea of itself is wrapped up with ideas of individualism, self-reliance,” says Paul Barrett, author of Glock: The Rise of America’s Gun. “The founding of the country is rooted in a revolution. Looking at American culture and American history, firearms consistently through the generations are associated with those ideas of individuals and self-reliance – the rugged man of the frontier.”