Does Gun-Fee Hike Miss Target?

Treasury Secretary Bentsen has proposed a $600 licensing fee, but firearms dealers claim it won't help curb crime

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

GUN control is not the same as crime control, law officers and gun dealers say in reaction to a 60-fold hike in the gun-dealer licensing fee proposed by Treasury Secretary Lloyd Bentsen this week.

Jack Killorin, spokesman for the Treasury Department's Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms (ATF), explains that the current fee of $10 encourages an individual who does not intend to become a gun dealer to register as one. Then they can buy guns at wholesale prices, saving hundreds of dollars.

That's why there are 284,000 gun dealers in a country that has only 9,000 McDonald's restaurants, Mr. Killorin says. The ATF estimates that Americans own 212 million guns.

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The recently passed Brady bill will raise the federal firearms license fee to $66 starting next month. In proposing a $600 annual fee, Mr. Bentsen hopes to weed out illegitimate license holders, cutting the number to between 35,000 and 70,000.

The ATF employs the equivalent of 240 full-time inspectors to visit 16,000 licensees a year. Thus, it would take more than 17 years to check them all. Each workday 400 applications arrive.

If the number can be reduced to a manageable level, ``we have a chance to spot problems as they're developing through routine compliance visits, rather than tracing guns back from the scene of a tragedy,'' Killorin says.

But Austin gun dealer Joe McBride says the proposal is misdirected at small-time dealers and start-up gunsmiths. ``Six hundred dollars is a lot of money to them,'' he says. ``Eliminate criminals, not the American businessman.''

The top lawman in Killeen, Texas, scene of the nation's worst mass murder, says the target of action should be the criminals' gun sources. ``That's normally not a gun shop,'' Police Chief F. L. Giacommozi says. Guns change hands without regulation at garage sales and gun shows.

`Even if they banned firearms altogether in this country, the criminals are still going to have them,'' says Diane Lawson, who teaches personal protection in Austin. ``It's better for people to have guns and know how to use them.''

Tombstone, Ariz., has been fairly quiet since the 1881 gunfight at the OK Corral. Marshall Bobby Gerencer recalls that the last fatal shooting among town residents was in 1987. ``The illegal dealers on the black market can make $600 on a couple of gun sales.'' What's needed, he says, is ``capital punishment.''

``If every law-abiding citizen in America had a gun in their home, then the criminals would not have free rein like they have now,'' adds Jim Marshall, owner of Diamond Jim's Western Emporium, Tombstone's only gun store.

Bentsen's proposal is ``going to have absolutely no effect on reducing crime,'' he says. ``Only 1 in 14 guns used in crimes are purchased from a gun store or retail outlet. Those are usually crimes of passion.'' Mr. Marshall adds: ``I don't think it's up to the government to decide who can buy wholesale and who can't. This is between the retailer and the wholesaler. The better wholesalers do demand that you send them a copy of your tax number, your business license, and a photograph of your store.''

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