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Basically, far more guns are owned illegally within the boundaries of New York City than are held legally. Government officials wanted tight restrictions on firearms, and they got them—but that doesn’t seem to have deterred many people from owning the things.
New York City officials blame states with looser laws for the flow of illicit guns. Mayor Bloomberg has famously waged a campaign of “straw-man” purchases against gun shops in states such as South Carolina, Georgia, and Virginia to which firearms found in New York City have been traced. The mayor’s proxies purchased guns in their own names, illegally intended for transfer to other people. Lawsuits followed against the stores where the purchases were permitted. That raises interesting questions about why mere citizens who make such purchases get sent to prison, while government agents acting far outside their jurisdiction get a free pass.
But if guns are currently coming from legal dealers in more permissive jurisdictions, there’s nothing to say that’s the only possible source, or that imposing tighter laws elsewhere will cut off the flow. After all, cocaine, marijuana, heroin, and other drugs find their way to New York City in generous quantities in the absence of any legal source within the United States—or outside it, for that matter.
In fact, New York City’s situation with guns is mirrored in Europe, where countries with tight restrictions also find themselves awash in illegal firearms without any clear parallels for the relatively liberal laws of Virginia or South Carolina to blame. According to the Small Arms Survey (PDF) at the Graduate Institute of International Studies in Geneva, Switzerland:
Contrary to widely-accepted national myths, public gun ownership is commonplace in most European states. It may appear to some outside observers—especially Americans—that Europeans have blindly surrendered their gun rights (Heston, 2002). The reality is that the citizens of most European countries are better armed than they realize. ...
Regulations tightly control gun ownership in only a few European countries like the Netherlands, Poland, and the United Kingdom. In much of the rest of the continent, public officials readily admit that unlicensed owners and unregistered guns greatly outnumber legal ones. ...
"Greatly outnumber?” Just how greatly?
Well, says the Small Arms Survey, a research outfit established by the Swiss government, the United Kingdom, with just shy of 1.8 million legal firearms, has about four million illegal guns. Belgium, with about 458,000 legal firearms, has roughly two million illegal guns. In Germany, the number is 7.2 million legal guns and between 17 and 20 million off-the-books examples of things that go “bang” (a figure with which the German Police Union very publicly agrees). France, says the Survey, has 15-17 million unlawful firearms in a nation where 2.8 million weapons are held in compliance with the law.
Even those numbers may understate the case. While the 2003 Small Arms Survey report put the number of legal guns in Greece at 805,000 and illegal guns at 350,000, just two years later, the Greek government itself nudged those figures up, just a tad, to one million legal guns and 1.5 million illegal ones.
So New Yorkers aren’t alone in being armed to the teeth outside the law.
It’s not that governments haven’t tried to grab those guns. One government after another has implemented schemes for registration, licensing, and even confiscation. But those programs have met with … less than universal respect.
In a white paper on the results of gun control efforts around the world, Gun Control and the Reduction of the Number of Arms, Franz Csaszar, a professor of criminology at the University of Vienna, Austria, wrote, “non-compliance with harsher gun laws is a common event.”
Dr. Csaszar estimates compliance with Australia’s 1996 ban on self-loading rifles and pump-action shotguns at 20 percent.
And even that underwhelming estimate gives the authorities the benefit of the doubt. Three years after Australia’s controversial ban was implemented, when 643,000 weapons had been surrendered, Inspector John McCoomb, the head of the state of Queensland’s Weapons Licensing Branch, told The Sunday Mail, "About 800,000 (semi-automatic and automatic) SKK and SKS weapons came in from China back in the 1980s as part of a trade deal between the Australian and Chinese governments. And it was estimated that there were 1.2 million semi-automatic Ruger 10/22s in the country. That's about 2 million firearms of just two types in the country."