Sunday, February 29, 2004

Well, here we are again, in the throes of another election-year battle over how to keep guns out of the hands of all the modern Jesse Jameses while not trampling on the rights of the intrepid Elmer Fudds. Don’t expect Congress to do anything exceptionally courageous.

The vast majority of gun owners in the United States are law-abiding citizens who use their weapons in pursuit of honest activities like hunting or skeet shooting or as an inducement for sleeping easier knowing their trusty six-shooter is nearby. They are no threat to anyone except perhaps themselves, especially during hunting season, when the nation’s forests resound with the reports of thousands of rifles all seemingly firing at the same deer.

Many of these citizens spend hours each weekend at one of the hundreds of gun shows staged for their benefits across the nation. They have every right to do so without being hassled by anti-gun forces, including law-enforcement officers at all levels, who increasingly see these events as a main source of the murder and mayhem that plagues our urban society.

While gun shows provide legitimate enterprise and entertainment for thousands of good citizens, they also have become a major marketplace for the trafficking in illegal weapons by criminals who can easily avoid the deterrent of a background check through a loophole in the federal law.

Very simply, dealers in used weapons are exempt from the statute that requires licensed dealers selling new weapons at these shows to put their customers through a record search. So why should a person intent on using a gun for illegitimate purposes buy from an honest, licensed dealer either in his shop or at one of these shows when the guy selling a used semi-automatic handgun from the next booth has no such restrictions?

That’s the crux of the problem that has made these weekly events the second-largest source of weapons for criminal activity. The first still is licensed dealers who either ignore the law or unwittingly sell to a straw buyer who can pass the background check. Congress clearly should deal with the first by closing the gun-show loophole and with the other by vastly improving its prosecution of federal gun-law offenders. At the same time, lawmakers ultimately should extend the ban on the manufacture and sale of assault weapons, which expires in September, and reject a gun-lobby effort to immunize the nation’s manufacturers of firearms from the legal responsibility for the rising toll of gun crimes — an act law-enforcement officials oppose as relieving the industry of any obligations to make their weapons safer.

While all three prongs of the attack on firearm misuse are important, tougher enforcement of existing laws probably outweighs the others because of the message it would send to casual violators. Federal prosecutors for years have been looking the other way when it comes to gun-law violations. Only 2 percent of federal gun crimes are ever prosecuted, according to the Americans for Gun Safety organization.

For instance, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives cited the Washington state dealer who sold the sniper rifle that killed so many in and around the District with six violations of federal law and recommended prosecution. But so far no charge has been filed, a disappointing contradiction to recent Justice Department pledges to go after gun violators.

Supporters of stronger enforcement also had hoped the Bush administration would give ATF the prosecutorial support when it was moved to the Justice Department. Somehow, that backing has been slow in emerging and anti-gun forces blame it on the fact Attorney General John Ashcroft has been a strong pro-gun advocate.

The ban on assault weapons is regarded as essential in ensuring that the nation’s law officers aren’t outgunned, as they have been in a number of highly publicized instances recently. The gun-safety group, citing Justice Department figures, says that during the 10 years the ban has been in effect the proportion of assault weapons traced to crimes has dropped by 65.8 percent.

Accomplishing anything in the direction of a more responsible national firearms policy during this election year will be difficult, if not impossible, with most politicians from both major parties terrified of the repercussions of supporting such action. The well-heeled National Rifle Association, despite the fact its membership is largely made up of those law-abiding citizens who use guns wisely, has never been supportive of responsible steps to protect the rights of those who don’t hunt, shoot skeet or targets or collect antiques or sleep with a gun under their pillows.

Dan K. Thomasson is former editor of the Scripps Howard News Service.

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