By Christopher anderson
WASHINGTON – The number of people seeking gun permits in Maryland last year declined to the lowest number in at least five years, while the number permit applications nationwide rose slightly in 2001, according to state and federal officials.
Maryland’s steep decline comes on the heels of major gun-control laws adopted in 2000, but activists on both sides of the gun control issue were hesitant to attribute the change to any single factor.
The number of people seeking background checks for gun purchases in Maryland fell 17.6 percent, from 34,316 in 2000 to 28,265 in 2001, according to a report released last week by the U.S. Department of Justice as well as previously unreported Maryland State Police statistics.
The number of gun permit applications in 2001 was the lowest since 1996, the earliest year for which statistics on the applications were available.
In contrast, the Justice Department said the number of background checks nationwide increased 3.4 percent during the same time period.
Between 2000 and 2001, Maryland began to require safety locks, a five-year mandatory minimum sentence for illegal firearm possession, gun safety training for all new buyers and ballistics fingerprinting for new handguns.
“We do think that the laws, which may have played a role in causing those numbers to go down, are a good thing,” said Nancy Hwa, spokeswoman for the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence. She cautioned, however, that determining the cause of the downward trend in gun purchases can be “complicated.”
“If Maryland’s strong law does mean that fewer guns are being sold, hopefully it means that fewer criminals are getting guns,” she said.
But, she added, without more information, such analysis is incomplete. Hwa said she would like to see all states collect more data with greater specificity, for example gun sales figures and statistics that distinguish between handguns and long guns such as rifles.
The National Rifle Association saw little significance in the state’s decline in gun permit applications and no connection between the sharp decline and Maryland’s new laws.
“I think there are numerous reasons why this could be,” said Kelly Whitley, a spokeswoman for the NRA.
Violent crime rates statistics tell more about the effects of Maryland’s gun control legislation, according to Whitley.
“If you go right across the river to Virginia,” Whitley said, where gun ownership is not as tightly regulated as in Maryland, “their violent crime rate is two and a half times lower than Maryland’s.”
While the gun permit statistics might suggest that gun retailers in Maryland are struggling, the picture there is more complex, too. Anecdotal reports on sales in Maryland’s gun stores are a mixed bag, according to Sanford Abrams, gunshop owner and vice president of the Maryland Firearms Dealers Association.
Abrams said that while his gun business has been strong, 12 to 15 gun shops have closed or moved out of state in the last year.
Following Sept. 11, Abrams’ shop saw a 50 percent increase in sales overall. Similar reports surfaced around the country at that time.
“My biggest problem was getting enough product,” he said. But, Abrams’ booming fourth quarter in 2001 was followed by a slow first quarter this year.
“During the fourth quarter of last year,” Abrams said, “everybody and his mother bought a handgun.”