WASHINGTON — THEY were 470 people with past convictions for wanton endangerment of life, drug violations, murder, robbery and rape, including one man who had threatened three times to kill the president.
They all walked into shops in Kentucky last month or this month to buy handguns and were denied them under the federal Brady Act, which took effect Feb. 28.
Kentucky is one of a few states that keeps statewide figures on enforcement of the new law requiring a five-day waiting period and background check for handgun purchases. But a spot check with county sheriffs around the country shows similar results in many jurisdictions.
About 4 percent of the people seeking handguns in Kentucky through April 22 were denied them by state police.
``The big story about Brady is: They didn't get the gun, whereas before Brady they would have,'' says Special Agent Mike Scanlan of the United States Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms in Kentucky.
``The evidence to me is clear that background checks deter criminals from buying guns,'' he added.
That is not so clear to Lt. Tim Green of the Laramie County sheriff's office in Cheyenne, Wyo. Of 49 applications to buy handguns last month, Lieutenant Green's office approved all of them. Congress meant well with the Brady Act, he says, ``but there are so many loopholes in the law that I don't see how it can be effective.''
``What we're catching with [Brady] is probably just a small percentage of the people who shouldn't have guns,'' he said.
But a small percentage is worth the trouble to Chittenden County Sheriff Kevin McLaughlin of Burlington, Vt. `IT'S a lot more work than we thought,'' he says. It took several long-distance telephone calls, for instance, to figure out whether a third-degree burglary conviction in Texas by a prospective gun buyer was a felony or a misdemeanor.
The difference decides whether the sale goes through. In another case, a casual call to another local police department revealed that a would-be gun owner with a string of misdemeanors on his record had once been committed to a mental institution - scotching that gun sale.
So far, Sheriff McLaughlin has denied 7 gun sales out of about 160 applications. Not all the denials have been to felons or mental patients.
The Brady Act requires a photo identification issued by a government agency - typically a driver's license. Vermont does not require pictures on its driver's licenses, so the sheriff denied one sale to a fellow for lack of a photo ID because he knew him to be a police officer.
For all the trouble, however, ``there are seven people I know that won't get a weapon,'' he says. Although, he adds, ``that doesn't mean they won't be breaking into your house or mine and stealing one.''
Some sheriffs in the South and West, where gun ownership is high, are uncomfortable with enforcing the law.
Five, in fact, from Texas, Montana, Arizona, Louisiana, and Mississippi are suing to overturn it as an unconstitutional infringement on states' rights.
In 22 other states and territories, including most of the biggest states, the Brady Act does not apply because state laws are at least as stringent.
A total of 375,853 queries were made to the National Criminal Information Center last month for Brady background checks. Of those, 6.3 percent were identified as possible felons.
The Brady Act was passed at the end of last year as a first step in the massive anticrime package going through Congress. (Ban on semiautomatics, Page 6.)