Commentary

Why Wait to Buy a Gun?

This article appeared in the Chicago Tribune on September 12, 1988.

Congress is debating a comprehensive drug bill, purportedly designed to stop the epidemic of drug-related violence. Advocates of gun control, hoping to capitalize on congressional hysteria over the issue, want the bill to include a provision that would mandate a national seven-day waiting period and background check before anyone can buy a handgun. Proponents claim a waiting period would disarm violent drug dealers, but they’re very wrong.

Willis Ross of the Florida Police Chiefs Association recently observed: “I think any working policeman will tell you that the crooks already have guns. If a criminal fills out an application and sends his application… he’s the biggest, dumbest crook I’ve ever seen.” Kansas City’s chief of police echoed this sentiment in testimony at a Senate hearing. He noted that drug criminals acquire guns by theft, by trade or by using legal surrogate buyers. Drug dealers do not purchase their guns over the counter.

Under current national law, anyone who wants to buy a machine gun has to be fingerprinted, fill out a federal license application and then wait three months. Yet drug dealers still have no trouble obtaining stolen or illegally imported machine guns. If a strict law can’t keep machine guns away from drug dealers, a less strict waiting period for handguns won’t matter either.

Can anyone really believe that an individual who buys pure heroin by the ounce, who does business in the highly illegal chemicals used to produce amphetamines, or who sells cocaine on the toughest street corners in the worst neighborhoods will not know where to buy an illegal gun?

Almost every study of waiting periods has found them to be worthless. An anti-gun scholar, Duke University’s Philip Cook, explains that criminals do not buy guns through normal channels, but instead “find ways of circumventing the screening system entirely.” Cook concludes: “There has been no convincing proof that a police check on handgun buyers reduces violent crime rates.” A Senate Judiciary Committee investigation found no evidence that waiting periods prevent crime.

Though the anti-gun lobby claims that the majority of America’s police support waiting periods, there is much evidence to the contrary. In 1987, the Florida Police Chiefs Association convinced the Florida legislature to repeal a host of local waiting periods. When the National Association of Chiefs of Police surveyed its members, 59 percent said that a national seven-day waiting period would not be helpful. Most police chiefs want their officers on the street looking for criminals, not behind a desk sorting through paperwork submitted by honest citizens.

Citizens should not have to wait for government permission to exercise their constitutional rights to own handguns.

Americans are scared of drug crime. The anti-gun lobby thinks it has the opportunity to exploit that fear and rush its waiting-period bill through Congress. Yet common sense, a majority of the nation’s police chiefs and a mountain of criminological evidence indicate that a waiting period has nothing to do with the war on drugs. Instead, it’s war on the Constitution.

David Kopel is an associate policy analyst at the Cato Institute in Washington, D.C.