Was the one-handgun-a-month law effective?

Posted at 12:05 AM, Mar 01, 2012
and last updated 2012-03-01 00:26:41-05

Almost 20 years before he signed the repeal of the one-handgun-a-month law, Governor Bob McDonnell, then a state delegate, voted for the measure that was designed to reduce handgun trafficking in Virginia.

So how did the law work during those two decades? Was it effective?

The patron of the repeal effort, Scott Lingamfelter (R-31st District) says the law wasn’t needed anymore.

“Quite frankly, it was overtaken by the improved technology and the improved background checks that we have now in place,” Lingamfelter told CBS-6 News.

But the bill originally was designed to keep traffickers who could pass background checks from buying multiple pistols for sale to those with crime on their minds.

Back in the early 90s, Virginia had a nasty reputation as Guns ‘R Us. It still does.

“Virginia’s response with one-gun-a-month was to really address a multi-state concern,” said Dana Schrad, director of the Virginia Association of Chiefs of police. Back in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s she worked with the State Crime Commission looking at the trafficking issue.

The concern “was the ability, the ease of being able to purchase guns in Virginia through a straw man,” Schrad said. Even though straw purchases (someone who can pass a background check buying weapons for someone who can’t) are illegal, they are difficult to intercept and prove, since private gun sales are legal in Virginia and don’t require background checks.

So was the law effective during its 20-year run?

“The difficulty here it’s very expensive to do the kind of study that would look at whether one gun a month works because it would require to do a multistate study, Schrad said.  (By the way, the Virginia police chief’s association was against the repeal.)

The nonpartisan and typically budget-oriented Joint Legislative and Review Commission weren’t asked to check the data. The state police also didn’t track the law’s effectiveness.

And even though the Bureau of Alcohol Tobacco and Firearms compiles some gun-crime trace data, they don’t share their conclusions with state government. It’s a political firestorm.

But you can look at their data, much of it online.

Let’s check at a recent five-year period. Of the traced guns recovered in just one state - New York - Virginia was by far and away the biggest exporter.

But that number has been steadily going down, from 530 guns in 2006 to 415 in 2010.

Is that proof the law was working? Probably not. The data is incomplete and there are so many other variables in terms of other gun laws and the way the information is gathered.

And, Virginia consistently remains the number-two or number-three top crime gun exporter in the land, which could indicate the law hasn’t been all that effective.

New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg believed it helped. He’s angry Virginia has overturned the law.  “In the last two months alone we have had two police officers shot with illegal guns that came from Virginia,” he told CBS-6. One of the officers, Peter Figoski, died from a point-blank shot the face on December 12 while responding to a robbery.

Repealing the law “is only going to make matters worse,” Bloomberg said.

Will it? Lots of people and groups will be watching in coming months and years.

(Remember, the law only restricted handgun sales from licensed dealers. You could still buy all the rifles and shotguns you wanted every month from a dealer, and all the handguns you wanted from private individuals. There were also exemptions for concealed-carry permit holders.)

Bottom line: It looks like it would be difficult to find concrete evidence that shows the one-handgun-a-month law reduced trafficking, crime and violence.

But, at the same time, you would think before lawmakers repealed a law involving safety and life, you would have some indication that it doesn’t work.