Three surveys show that a year after the Brady law was passed a significant number of criminals has been stopped from buying handguns by the required background checks.
The surveys found that up to 45,000 convicted felons, or 2 percent to 3.5 percent of all applicants for handguns, were turned down after the reviews.
The studies were conducted by the Federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms, CBS News and the International Association of Chiefs of Police in conjunction with Handgun Control Inc. Handgun Control is headed by Sarah Brady, the wife of James Brady, the former White House press secretary who was wounded in the assassination attempt in 1981 against President Ronald Reagan and for whom the Brady law is named.
"I believe the Brady bill has reduced the number of crimes those felons would have committed," said District Attorney J. Tom Morgan of DeKalb County, Ga., which includes part of Atlanta. "It shows criminals do go to stores to buy guns, and they obviously don't buy handguns to go duck hunting."
Mr. Morgan acknowledged that there is no direct measure of the effects on stopping crime. Experts are sharply divided on whether the legislation has reduced violent crime.
"I don't think the test of the Brady Bill is whether felons have been stopped from buying guns," said James Q. Wilson, professor of management at the University of California at Los Angeles. "The test is whether felons have been stopped from buying guns and then killing people with them. And that we don't know."
Bill Bridgewater, executive director of the National Alliance of Stocking Gun Dealers, a trade group in Havelock, N.C., said: "The 40,000 people who were stopped were only stopped at that store at that time. They weren't arrested. So all they had to do was go out on the street corner at midnight and pay more to get a gun."
The law, which went into effect on Feb. 28, 1994, calls for five-day waiting periods and background checks before handgun purchases. Several categories of people are denied permission to buy guns, including convicted felons, fugitives from justice, illegal aliens, juveniles and the mentally ill.
The law does not require that felons or fugitives trying to buy guns be arrested.
That is up to the local police. CBS News, in its survey of 19 states, said at least 551 people were arrested after background checks.
Mr. Bridgewater said more important deterrents were other little-noticed regulatory changes. Provisions in the Brady law and the crime law give the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms added power to regulate federally licensed firearms dealers.
In the 1980s the number of federally licensed dealers soared, to 284,000 at the beginning of the Clinton administration from 155,000 in 1980. Many were so-called kitchen-table dealers who bought cheap handguns and resold them at shows, through the mail or on the streets of big cities, Mr. Bridgewater said. By law, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms could do nothing to limit the dealers if they paid the $10-a-year licensing fee.
The Brady law raised the fee, to $200 for three years, and the crime law added a requirement that dealers provide photographic identifications, submit to a fingerprint test and comply with local and state business laws.
In the last year the number of federally licensed dealers has fallen, to 224,000, according to a spokesman for the bureau, Jack Killorin. Because the licenses have a three-year limit, Mr. Killorin said, he expects the number to drop much further in a few years.
Mr. Bridgewater said his alliance estimated that the United States has 1,600 legal gun stores, in addition to 5,000 large stores like Kmart that sell guns.
Law-enforcement officials say it is too early to measure the effectiveness of another law passed last year, the ban on manufacturing and importing 19 types of semiautomatic weapons. That ban started in November.
"Assault weapons are big, ugly, scary guns that make good press," Mr. Bridgewater said. "But they are used in only 1 or 2 percent of crime."
Mr. Morgan said his investigators had found evidence that the ban may eventually be effective in reducing crime. The street price of AK-47 rifles has jumped, to $400 to $500 from $80, since the ban, he said. "This will limit the availability especially for your typical 18-year-old kid who conducts drive-by shootings."