RICHMOND, Va. - Sen. Frank R. Lautenberg, a New Jersey Democrat, persistently campaigns for a national one-handgun-per-month law and is quick to identify the trendsetter: the commonwealth of Virginia.
"Virginia is a state where a large number of people hunt and like to have a gun," said Lautenberg. "So when Virginia [passed a one-per-month law], you had to scratch your head and say, 'Why?' "
The answer was to erase the state's image as a source for criminal firepower up the East Coast. Maryland legislators approved a nearly identical law two years ago, at least in part on the strength of Virginia's experience.
"It made it easier for us," said Maryland Lt. Gov. Kathleen Kennedy Townsend.
Five years after Virginia enacted its handgun limit, it has an enthusiastic following. Pennsylvania is considering a similar law, and Lautenberg has held a public hearing on his federal version.
L The law's results, in both Virginia and Maryland, are mixed.
Law officials' view
Law enforcement officials said the handgun cap has blocked much of the flow of illegal guns from Virginia to New York City.
The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms dropped Virginia's ranking from first to eighth among source states for guns seized at crime scenes in the Northeast.
Jim Comey, executive assistant United States attorney in Richmond and a federal prosecutor for six years in Manhattan, said federal agents used to arrest gun runners "at the bus station or off a train at Penn Station carrying bags of guns from Virginia."
After the one-a-month law was enacted, "the bad guys had to find someplace else to go," said Comey.
Virginia wasn't the first state to approve a monthly handgun limit South Carolina passed one in 1976 but brought the concept to the political forefront.
Political leaders and gun control enthusiasts who championed Virginia's handgun limit, enacted in 1993, cited statistics showing the state as the leading source of handguns recovered from New York City and Washington, D.C., crime scenes. The distinction inspired a nickname for Interstate 95 "the iron highway" and a cynical twist on a state tourism slogan: "Virginia is for GUN lovers."
The numbers since the law took effect, however, don't show that those days are over.
Among guns confiscated in New York City in 1996 and 1997, three and four years after the Virginia purchase limit took effect, Virginia ranks behind only New York state as a source of firearms.
Data from 13 other cities, from Baltimore to Salinas, Calif., showed Virginia one of the top ten crime gun sources.
Under an ATF anti-trafficking program that began two years ago, every gun recovered from a crime scene in 17 major U.S. cities is submitted for tracing to its original buyer. Between July 1, 1996 and April 30, 1997, ATF successfully traced 16,613 firearms.
Among those weapons, the share of Virginia guns showing up outside the state ranged from 14 out of 97, or 14 percent, in Jersey City, N.J., to 8 out of 827, or less than 1 percent, in San Antonio, Tex.
Even as far away as Seattle, four of the 208 recovered guns came from Virginia.
Federal and state law enforcement officials attribute the numbers to a gun glut. So many firearms from Virginia were illegally channeled out of state prior to the one-handgun-per-month law that they will continue to pop up at crime scenes for years, officials said.
Among the guns traced in 1996 and 1997, however, half of them were less than four years old, suggesting that a considerable percentage of the Virginia guns were trafficked after the handgun limit took effect.
Richard Cullen, the then-United States Attorney who helped usher in the handgun purchase limit, said while some gun trafficking continues, the law has ended the "horror stories" of gun peddlers who used Virginia to restock.
"The whole idea behind the law was to take the economic incentive out of it, so there would be no reason for gun runners to come into Virginia and buy a bunch of guns and go back into New York," said Cullen. "That source of trafficking has been stopped in its tracks."
At least one reason that gun trafficking out of Virginia continues is that law enforcement only now is learning the characteristics of the illegal firearms market. The ATF tracing program showed that most illegal gun deals are within the same state and involve small numbers of guns. The conventional concept of all gun traffickers as interstate ringleaders was a misconception.
"Even granting that [the one-a-month limit] can make a dent [in gun trafficking], there are all kinds of ways around it," said David Kennedy, a Harvard professor who helped design Boston's nationally-acclaimed youth anti-crime campaign.
The easiest route around the handgun limit is for the gun runner to get several subordinates to buy a gun every month, a practice called "smurfing," after the troop of blue cartoon elves.
Raising the bar
"At best, one gun sort of raises the bar," Kennedy said.