Although opinion polls indicate that most Americans favor some form of gun licensing (for the same reasons they approve of auto licensing), 69 percent of Americans oppose laws giving the police power to decide who may or may not own a firearm.That is exactly what licensing is. Permits tend to be granted not to those who are most at risk but to those with whom the police get along. In St. Louis, for example, permits have routinely been denied to homosexuals, nonvoters, and wives who lack their husbands' permission. Other police departments have denied permits on the basis of race, sex, and political affiliation, or by determining that hunting or target shooting is not an adequate reason for owning a handgun.
Class discrimination pervades the process. New York City taxi drivers, who are more at risk of robbery than anyone else in the city, are denied gun permits, since they carry less than $2,000 in cash. (Of course, most taxi drivers carry weapons anyway, and only rookie police officers arrest them for doing so.) As the courts have ruled, ordinary citizens and storeowners in the city may not receive so-called carry permits because they have no greater need for protection than anyone else in the city. Carry permits are apparently reserved for New Yorkers such as the Rockefellers, John Lindsay, the publisher of the New York Times, (all of them gun control advocates), and the husband of Dr. Joyce Brothers. Other licensees include an aide to a city councilman widely regarded as corrupt, several major slumlords, a Teamsters Union boss who is a defendant in a major racketeering suit, and a restaurateur identified with organized crime and alleged to control important segments of the hauling industry--hardly proof that licensing restricts gun ownership to upstanding citizens. The licensing process can be more than a minor imposition on the purchaser of a gun. In Illinois the automated licensing system takes 60 days to authorize a clearance. Although New Jersey law requires that the authorities act on gun license applications within 30 days, delays of 90 days are routine; some applications are delayed for years, for no valid reason.Licensing fees may be raised so high as to keep guns out of the hands of the poor. Until recently Dade County, Florida, which includes Miami, charged $500 for a license; nearby Monroe County charged $2,000. These excessive fees on a means of self- defense are the equivalent of a poll tax. Or licensing may simply turn into prohibition. Mayor Richard Hatcher of Gary, Indiana, ordered his police department never to give anyone license application forms. The police department in New York City has refused to issue legally required licenses, even when commanded by courts to do so. The department has also refused to even hand out blank application forms. In addition to police abuse of licensing discretion, there is also the problem of the massive data collection that would result from a comprehensive licensing scheme. For example, New York City asks a pistol permit applicant:
Have you ever . . . Been discharged from any employment?
Been subpoenaed to, or attended [!] a hearing or inquiry conducted by any executive, legislative, or judicial body?
Been denied appointment in a civil service system, Federal, State, Local?
Had any license or permit issued to you by any City, State, or Federal Agency?
Applicants for a business premises gun permit in New York City must also supply personal income-tax returns, daily bank deposit slips, and bank statements. Photocopies are not acceptable. A grocer in the South Bronx may wonder what the size ofhis bank deposits has to do with his right to protection.
The same arguments that lead one to reject a national identity card apply to federal gun licensing. A national licensing system would require the collection of dossiers on half the households in the United States (or a quarter, for handgun-only record-keeping).
Implementing national gun licensing would make introduction of a national identity card more likely. Assuming that a large proportion of American families would become accustomed to the government collecting extensive data about them, they would probably not oppose making everyone else go through the same procedures for a national identity card.
Finally, licensing is not going to stop determined criminals. The most thorough study of the weapons behavior of felony prisoners (the Wright-Rossi project funded by the National Institute of Justice) found that five-sixths of the felons did not buy their handguns from a retail outlet anyway. (Many of the rest used a legal, surrogate buyer, such as a girlfriend.)As noted above, felons have little trouble buying stolen guns on the streets. In sum, it remains to be proven that gun licensing would significantly reduce crime. Given the very clear civil liberties problems with licensing, it cannot be said that the benefits outweigh the costs.