Violence Policy Center


IndexOnline NewsPress ReleasesFact SheetsPublicationsLinksHomeAbout VPC
Looking for something?

Licensing and Registration: What it Can and Can Not Do

How does licensing of gun owners work?

Licenses or permits to purchase are designed to restrict those who can legally obtain specific categories of firearms. Prior to obtaining a weapon, the purchaser must fill out a license or permit application form with the local or state licensing authority and pay all required fees. A background check, usually through the National Instant Check system, is then conducted. If the purchaser is approved a license or permit is issued. Licenses are of varying duration and often do not limit the number of weapons a person can buy.

What does registration of firearms add?

Through registration, national, state, or local authorities record the ownership of a specific firearm. Several states have implemented such systems. There is also an existing federal registration system that now includes weapons such as machine guns, sawed-off rifles and shotguns, silencers, and hand grenades. This system could be expanded to include handguns. This would be the most cost-effective and efficient method of registering America's arsenal of more than 65 million handguns.

What are the benefits of licensing and registration?

Licensing has an impact primarily on criminal gun use�aiding police investigations through tracing. It can help to identify and weed out criminals who are trying to purchase firearms through legal channels, and the application process itself may discourage casual buyers. Registration of firearms could speed the tracing of firearms used in crimes. Registration would also aid police in identifying the types of firearms to which an individual may have access.

What are the limitations of licensing and registration?

Licensing systems are very expensive to administer. Canada's experience with its full licensing and registration system, begun in December 1998, is not encouraging. The government originally estimated that the cost of licensing Canada's three million gun owners and registering their seven million guns would be $185 million [Canadian] over five years including a one-time start-up cost of $85 million [Canadian]. But, by March 2000 the Canadian Firearms Centre admitted that the system had already cost Canadian taxpayers $327 million [Canadian] and was running up an annual bill nearly 10 times higher than the government's original forecast. The March announcement also revealed that although 270,000 valid licenses existed from the country's earlier gun control system, only 142,000 new licenses had been issued. Using these figures as a baseline for America's arsenal of 65 million handguns, the estimated cost of such a system here is staggering.

Most importantly, licensing and registration in America would have little effect on the vast majority of gun violence, such as unintentional gunshot deaths, suicides and the majority of homicides, since most homicides are the result of arguments between people who know each other and who purchase guns legally.

From a political perspective, a battle over licensing and registration brings every gun owner into the fray. The NRA argument that licensing and registration is the first step towards gun confiscation has always been very persuasive with gun owners. In contrast, health and safety regulation of the industry focuses on the conduct of firearm manufacturers.

Advocates of licensing and registration often cite automobiles as an example of the value of licensing and registration: we register automobiles and license drivers, so why not guns? However, licensing and registration�the primary purpose of which was to enforce a system of taxation�had virtually no effect on automobile death and injury. It was not until the National Highway Traffic and Safety Administration was established in the 1960s, and changes were forced in automobile design and the driving environment, that decreases were seen.

Finally, licensing and registration ignores the public health approach to reducing gun violence and disregards the lessons of consumer product safety by focusing on the user, and not on the manufacturer and the product itself.

In conclusion, licensing and registration can serve only as a supplement to regulation. But it can never substitute for comprehensive health and safety regulation of the gun industry.

Fact Sheet Index
Newest Files

Firearms Violence

Firearms Industry

Pro-Gun Special Interests
Federal Policy Issues
State Policy Issues
Product Liability
Women and Firearms Violence
Youth and Firearms Violence
Elderly and Firearms Violence
Contact the VPC

All contents � 2000 Violence Policy Center