For America, this has been a year of massacres. In a string of Columbine-like shootings, heavily armed gunmen have wreaked havoc on our society and made the need for gun control urgent. Yet, while legislators and the media focus on the proliferation of guns (about 90 firearms per 100 citizens), assault weapons, and large-capacity magazines, another factor is getting far less attention than it deserves -- and that is the lack of regulation for ammunition sales.
In Chicago, responding to rising gang violence in the city, Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle recently called for a tax of a nickel per bullet to make them more difficult to afford. While Ms. Preckwinkle's proposal is a necessary move towards sanity, a nickel a bullet is unlikely to make a dent in the problem; and a wider approach is required.
The reality is shocking. In the Colorado shooting, for example, the gunman was able to purchase 6,000 rounds of handgun and rifle ammunition, 350 shotgun shells, and a 100-round drum magazine over the internet for approximately $3,000. Even more disturbing is that he was able to do it undetected by law enforcement. As things stand, Americans can buy unlimited quantities of any type of ammunition online and remain practically anonymous while doing so.
The reason for this is that in most states ammunition sellers do not have to be licensed or maintain a record of their sales, and their customers do not require a permit or have to pass a background check to buy bullets. In some states, you can buy them at regular stores as if they were candy bars. For some perspective, most pharmaceutical drugs cannot be purchased legally without a doctor's prescription, and the Jenkins Act requires any person who sells cigarettes across state lines to report the sale to the buyer's state tobacco tax authority. If medicines and even tobacco are regulated, why is ammunition sold without any type of control?
This was not always the case. Prior to 1986, ammunition sellers had to be licensed, maintain sales records, and could not sell their wares across state lines except to retailers or distributors, who themselves were "on the radar." But these safeguards disappeared when Congress enacted the Firearm Owners Protection Act on the urging of the National Rifle Association, and following that, failed to adopt any measures to regulate online ammunition sales. In the gun business, profits usually trump patriotism, and innocent victims pay the price.
In the wake of the recent massacres, however, we cannot ignore the serious problem of gun violence any longer. Some states, like California, Illinois, Massachusetts, New Jersey, and the District of Columbia, have enacted laws to restrict and monitor the sale of ammunition, but for the most part these are still weak and ineffective.
In a recent conversation I had with Leslie Oliver, the Communications Director for Congressman Ed Perlmutter of Colorado, she highlighted the main initiative now being pursued in this regard, the Stop Online Ammunition Sales Act. This bill, sponsored by New York Congresswoman Carolyn McCarthy and New Jersey Senator Frank Lautenberg, and supported by Mr. Perlmutter, would effectively ban online and mail-order sales of ammunition to private citizens, as well as require dealers to be licensed, maintain sales records, and report the purchase of more than 1,000 rounds by any single buyer to the authorities. Ms. McCarthy's husband was among six people killed in 1993 by a gunman on a commuter train.
Even though it is certain that the bill will be opposed by the NRA, and has so far received little political support, I sincerely hope that our leaders will demonstrate the intelligence, foresight, and guts to do what is necessary. Since the expiration of the Assault Weapons Ban in 2004, the government has done very little to address gun violence, and that is unacceptable. I applaud Ms. Preckwinkle's efforts to institute a bullet tax in Chicago but hopefully we can do a lot more than just that.
SANJAY SANGHOEE has worked at leading investment banks and at a multi-billion dollar hedge fund. He has an MBA from Columbia Business School and is the author of two thrillers (available below), which Chicago Tribune has called "Timely, Gripping, and Original". He writes regularly on the topic of gun control. Please visit www.sanghoee.com for more information.