Firearms and Federal Law: The Gun Control Act of 1968

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Firearms and Federal Law: The Gun Control Act of 1968

Category: Firearm Availability, Firearm Policies, Homicide|Journal: The Journal of Legal Studies|Author: F Zimring|Year: 1975

IN 1968, after five years of debate on firearms control, Congress passed a Gun Control Act designed to “provide support to Federal, State, and local law enforcement officials in their fight against crime and violence.” This paper reports on an effort to study the impact of the Gun Control Act on the problems that prompted its passage. The study is of possible interest for two reasons.

First, it is an attempt to increase our rather modest knowledge of the effects of governmental efforts to control firearms violence. In recent years the rate of gun violence in the United States has managed to grow to alarming proportions without the benefit of sustained academic attention.  The 1968 Act-the only major change in federal policy since 1938-seems a natural place to look for clues about the effects of gun controls. And the need for knowledge in this area seems obvious, inasmuch as controversy is rampant and new federal legislative proposals are almost a weekly Washington event.

Second, the study is an effort to gain some perspective on the difficulties and promise of empirical studies of “legal impact.” Over the past few years, studies attempting to assess the impact of legislation have begun to occupy an important place in law-related scholarship. Diverse both in subject matter and methodology, these studies are motivated by the hope that they will build toward a deeper understanding of law as an instrument of social control.

The first section of this paper gives a capsule outline of the antecedents of the Gun Control Act-prior federal laws regulating firearms traffic and some of the legislative proposals that affected the shape of the 1968 law. Part II briefly analyzes the Act itself, showing how prior federal law was altered and how the alterations were thought to serve regulatory ends. Part III presents data on the impact of the law, focusing on the so-called “Saturday Night Special” ban and the effort to aid state and local gun control efforts by reducing the flow of firearms from loose-control to tight-control states. Part IV discusses some of the broader implications of the study.

The study will be of little use to the most fervent friends and foes of gun control legislation. It provides data they do not need. Each group has already decided that the 1968 Act has failed, and each group uses the Act’s presumed failure to confirm views already strongly held. Enthusiasts for strict federal controls see the failure of the law as proof that stricter laws are needed, while opponents see it as evidence that no controls will work. The picture that emerges from available data is more equivocal. There is evidence that the approach adopted by the Act can aid state efforts at strict firearms control, although the resources necessary to achieve this end have never been provided by Congress. There is also reason to believe that the potential impact of the Act is quite limited when measured against the problems it sought to alleviate.

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