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The U.S. officials complained about the difficulty in distinguishing ivory imported legally and illegally. No doubt, banning everything eases enforcement, but the policy fails to distinguish between guilt and innocence.

Moreover, much older ivory, given its manifold unique characteristics, is easily distinguishable from new work.

The illegal ivory supply also is small compared with that of legal ivory. Rather than ban the latter in an attempt to limit the former, the government should concentrate resources on aiding African countries in protecting their elephants, better interdicting illegal imports, and identifying sellers who specialize in new ivory.

In fact, targeting owners of legal ivory will perversely undermine such enforcement efforts. Making most ivory in America illegal will vastly expand the ivory black market and dramatically dilute enforcement resources.

Ivory commerce will continue, only more often underground. More objects will privately pass among dealers and collectors, never reaching public view.

The interstate ban, too, will be flouted. Owners also may hand-carry items to other nations without similar restrictions. Moreover, documentation will be faked.

Collectors and dealers will turn to those already participating in the illegal market, helping criminals expand their networks and increase their profits. Finally, overtaxed federal Fish and Wildlife agents may prefer to go after easy targets, such as local antique flea markets, rather than secretive smugglers.

If the administration does not withdraw its rules, Congress should overturn this unfair attack on the law-abiding. Washington should penalize poachers and their seller allies — not collectors and dealers who have followed the rules.

The administration’s new regulations will divert enforcement resources, and push owners of legal ivory into the illegal trade, meaning more elephants are likely to die.

Doug Bandow is a senior fellow at the Cato Institute and a former special assistant to President Reagan.