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.”
The argument is often one of safety, the feeling that the police may be too far away to help. Kathy Brady, a 48-year-old who holds Irish and American citizenship, lives in the Bronx and works for an investment advisor. The turning point in her attitude towards guns came after she bought a house in the remote Catskill Mountains. She was unnerved at how often delivery men would notice that she lived on her own. “I’m up there in the middle of nowhere. I’m in the woods. I’m basically alone,” she says. “One night I was in bed. I have a big German shepherd, and she jumped up in the bed, growling and bristling in a way that I’d never heard or seen her. I heard something outside my bedroom window, some twigs snapping, and it got my attention.”
Nothing happened that night, but Brady did her research, went to a gun range to get training, and invested in a shotgun. “I think anyone who has a gun who’s not a criminal has a healthy fear of the power behind it,” she says. “I think you have to be very careful with it and respect it for what it is.”
Barbara Eldredge, who grew up in the city of Spokane, in Washington, had a different experience with guns. “I grew up in the northwest,” she says. “When I was in high school there was a school shooting: a young man brought his father’s pistol to school. He didn’t harm anyone, but the police did end up having to shoot him, to make sure he didn’t injure someone else.”
Now a design writer and researcher in New York, Eldredge has written a thesis on the role of guns in American culture and design. She thinks that additional regulation of the United States’ guns is not enough on its own to solve the country’s problem with violence. “The idea of gun control assumes that, without these objects in circulation, we would be less violent people, that access to guns makes people more likely to commit horrendous crimes.”
Better education systems and social services would reduce the number of shootings, Eldredge suggests. “The problem is that for so many people it’s easier for them to buy a gun than it is for them to be helped for their psychological problems or their monetary problems.”
In recent years public support for introducing stronger gun laws has dropped to record lows, which explains why politicians are so hesitant to talk about it. The percentage of Americans who support stricter regulation fell from 78 per cent in 1990 to 44 per cent in 2010.
Another trend has also been evident: in Colorado, where the shooting occurred, gun sales have surged. This happens regularly after mass shootings, says Paul Barrett. “People who are concerned about their access to guns, people who want to protect their right to own a gun, fear that incidents such as the horrible mass killing in Aurora will lead straight away to stricter gun control, so they want to run out and buy some before that is denied to them. It’s perverse and strange, because there’s absolutely no pattern of that actually happening. But human behaviour isn’t always logical.”
A representative of the Tanner Gun Show, the oldest and largest gun show in Colorado, confirmed the phenomenon. “There’s been a spike in interest. People are trying to protect themselves,” he says, adding: “If you outlaw guns, only outlaws will have guns.”