Intercept Migrating Guns

Strict local gun-control laws do little when interstate guns are readily available, so federal efforts should focus on reducing handgun traffic

By , Franklin E. Zimring is a law professor and director of the Earl Warren Legal Institute, University of California at Berkeley.

WHILE politicians endlessly debate the wisdom and cost of new federal gun-control legislation, insufficient attention is paid to getting the maximum benefit out of existing laws.

Since 1968 federal law has prohibited sales of guns to out-of-state residents. The law was designed to protect jurisdictions like New York, Boston, and Washington that wish to restrict handgun possession from being inundated by guns that are purchased in states with looser controls. Interstate gun migration remains the major problem in these strict-control jurisdictions.

I suggest a three-step program to focus federal resources on cutting down on interstate guns and creating a climate for effective gun control - all with few new resources and no new laws.

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All of this can happen with far less political fallout than is normal for typical gun-control issues. This makes gun control worth discussing even in an election year.

Step one: Make enforcing the nation's gun laws the top priority of the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms (ATF). Over the past two decades, this bureau has become a jack-of-all-trades in federal law enforcement. It takes responsibility for a variety of programs, including oversight of explosives and career-criminal initiatives.

Lately, ATF has been functioning as a junior varsity squad of drug warriors in support of the Drug Enforcement Administration and other agencies. Part of the reason for this diffusion of focus is a feeling that dedication to gun-control laws is not the top priority of the National Rifle Association supporter currently in the White House.

Yet if George Bush wishes to express his support for state and local options on gun control, a necessary first step is to make gun-law enforcement a top priority at ATF.

Step two: Concentrate gun-law enforcement resources on those federal laws that are designed to reduce handgun migration.

The Gun Control Act of 1968 prohibits convicted felons and other ineligible people from acquiring guns. Making a case against felons who possess weapons is fairly simple - particularly when state or federal police turn up the cases and make referrals to ATF. This is the thrust of programs such as Operation Trigger Lock that are the feature element in ATF activity.

But such easy arrests are much less important to the support of state and local firearms control than finding out where interstate handguns are coming from and making their sale, transportation, and resale a hazardous occupation. The only way to assure adequate resources for interstate gun cases is to create a special priority for such cases and reward successes accordingly.

Step three: Most important for a new gun program, the federal government's resources must be concentrated on those few jurisdictions where strict state laws mean that all the guns confiscated on city streets are there in violation of federal laws.

In New York and Washington, every gun on the street is a federal case. Why? Because these weapons overwhelmingly come from out-of-state. By contrast, in most cities - even those with strict local laws - weak state laws make guns readily available. This would be true even if interstate gun dealing were stopped. Strict enforcement of federal law will not help such cities.

Hence, why not concentrate federal resources on that small number of jurisdictions where the state and local law is strict? By spending most of its resources helping those states that are trying to help themselves, the federal authorities could help determine how much impact a resource-rich enforcement of current law can have.

The alternative to a strong and tightly directed program is what we currently have - a thin layer of federal enforcement resources spread over the entire country. That policy has not been a notable success, though it has had two decades to be one.

With a concentrated federal effort, every gun that turns up in the streets of New York can launch a federal criminal investigation. Tracing confiscated weapons will show - importantly - which localities are the starting points for guns in New York, Boston, and Washington.

Putting pressure on the areas and dealers with the most persistent record of migrating guns can help make interstate sales a business worth avoiding. Restricting federal enforcement to helping those jurisdictions that help themselves can also create useful incentives for state and local government.

If states wish priority federal assistance, they can close the loopholes in state law that now make federal laws ineffectual in cities such as Chicago and Philadelphia.

This priority will put the majority of federal gun cops in those areas where states and cities want them the most. Other states, including California, would receive less federal enforcement attention. Again, this is a kind of federal gun-law enforcement that makes political sense even in an election year. The aim of such a program is to secure the rights of the states and cities to determine their own gun policies.

A focused effort to achieve this state-aid goal is certainly not the only role citizens might wish their national government to play in gun control. But it would be an important initiative and a strong candidate for consensus federal policy toward guns in the 1990s.

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