Is America, often viewed abroad as the land of guns, in fact the land of unenforced gun laws? That's certainly the image being thrust before the public by the National Rifle Association and other pro-gun voices.
NRA executive vice president Wayne LaPierre went so far as to accuse President Clinton of exploiting gun violence in order to keep gun control a hot political issue. Mr. LaPierre implies the laws currently on the books would do the job, if they were only enforced. He says the president has "blood on his hands" for not cracking down on people with criminal records who try to buy guns from licensed dealers.
Without a doubt, existing gun laws like those prohibiting sales to convicted felons need stronger enforcement. But also without a doubt, the federal agency charged with that enforcement, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms (ATF), is understaffed for the job. There are some 58 federally licensed dealers for each of the agents (who also have other tasks). And inspections, which can't be random, are by law limited to one a year. Congress and the gun lobby have seen to it over the years that ATF's ability to police gun transactions is, to put it mildly, limited.
So if the NRA is changing its tune on that and is eager to get behind a significant beefing up of federal enforcement, good.
Federal enforcement is in fact a relatively small part of the picture. All but a handful of the thousands of gun laws across the country are state laws. Enforcement at that level is crucial. So is the enactment of new laws that make gun violence less likely and give better tools to enforcers.
Gov. George Pataki of New York, often floated as a possible George W. Bush running mate, would agree. He's proposed extensive new laws for his state, including a method of tracing guns by their ballistic fingerprints, background checks on people who buy guns at gun shows, and mandatory gun locks. Reasonable steps from a staunch Republican.
Republicans and Democrats should join hands in Washington to reconcile and pass the new federal laws written last year in the wake of the Columbine shootings. At present they languish in conference. They include some of the same steps Governor Pataki is pushing in New York.
Across the US, what's needed is a tight weave of preventive measures and tough enforcement. Support for that is welcome from any quarter.
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society