Strong Enforcement of Weak Gun Laws? Not Enough

Even if we could improve enforcement of existing laws, should improved enforcement be the sum total of our national policy toward gun crime?
08/08/2009 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

When House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) was asked about legislation to ban assault weapons, she responded, "On that score, I think we need to enforce the laws we have right now."

When President Obama was asked by Bob Schieffer on Face the Nation about whether he plans to ask Congress to enact an assault weapon ban to address the torrent of American assault weapons flowing to Mexican drug cartels, the President replied, "I think the main thing we need is better enforcement."

These statements are eerie echoes of a classic gun lobby refrain: "We don't need new gun laws. We need to enforce the laws we have." Apart from the troubling sound of the Speaker and the President channeling the gun lobby, does the argument make any sense? Is the need for stronger enforcement a sound justification for our failure to enact stronger laws?

It is already illegal, for example, for convicted felons to possess guns, including assault weapons. No doubt more resources could, and should, be devoted to apprehending and prosecuting criminals who have guns, or who commit violent crimes with guns. The issue is: Even if we could improve enforcement of existing laws in these ways, should improved enforcement be the sum total of our national policy toward gun crime?

A staggering number of assault weapons used by Mexican drug cartels have been traced back to American gun dealers. The Obama Administration is taking steps to increase the number of federal agents to interdict the gun traffickers as they try to smuggle these killing machines into Mexico.

That's all fine and good. But why should we limit our efforts to finding the assault weapons hidden in autos heading for the border and then arresting and prosecuting the traffickers? Wouldn't it be more effective to bar dealers from selling assault weapons to prevent the traffickers from getting the guns in the first place?

The "just enforce current laws" argument also fails to recognize that sometimes new laws are needed to strengthen enforcement of existing laws. The Brady Law is an example. Before the Brady Law took effect in 1994, it already was illegal for felons to buy guns at gun stores. The problem was that this law was difficult to enforce, because there was no mandatory background check required to determine if a prospective purchaser was a felon or otherwise legally barred from buying guns.

If we had adopted the "just enforce current laws" approach, we would have continued to allow convicted felons to walk into gun stores, lie on a federal form about their criminal records, and walk out with guns.

In the fifteen years since the Brady Law was enacted, it has stopped an estimated 1.6 million criminals and other dangerous people from using this "lie and buy" path to guns. Would it have been rational to allow those sales to happen, because we could have simply "enforced the laws on the books" by pursuing the criminals after they had bought the guns?

Consider also the proposal to close the "gun show loophole." The primary limitation on the Brady Law is that it mandates background checks only on purchasers from licensed gun dealers. Yet experts have estimated that 40% of gun transactions don't involve licensed dealers at all and therefore are not covered by Brady.

Gun shows are a primary venue for these no-check sales. A licensed dealer who was selling at a Texas gun show recently complained, "I have had people that failed background checks, and yet they are carrying guns out of here that they bought from someone else."

According to the "enforce current law" argument, we should allow criminals to exploit this loophole in the background check system, but devote more enforcement resources to tracking down the criminal after he has the gun. Doesn't it make more sense to prevent the no check sales in the first place?

This Spring, in a little over a month's time, over 50 people were killed in mass shootings in the United States. In virtually all of these incidents, the shooter either attacked police officers who already were "enforcing current laws," or the shooter committed suicide after the rampage, strongly suggesting that "more enforcement" would not have deterred him.

Some politicians may continue to use the "just enforce current laws" argument as a handy excuse for avoiding a showdown with the gun lobby. As long as our gun laws are as weak as they are, however, stronger enforcement will never be enough.

For more information, see Dennis Henigan's new book, Lethal Logic: Exploding the Myths that Paralyze American Gun Policy.