States' top cops split on adding more gun laws

But more attorneys general call for 'common sense' approach.

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

The great divide in Washington over what to do about gun violence has spread to the states, where the top law officers are split sharply over which is the greater need: more gun-control measures, or better enforcement of existing laws.

An informal Monitor survey of more than a dozen state attorneys general shows the issue breaks along party and geographical lines.

But it also reveals a rising interest in new, "common sense" gun-control legislation - even among some attorneys general from conservative, pro-gun states. While the states' gun laws still vary widely, a few ideas, such as requiring background checks for gun buyers at gun shows, are gaining credence among this group of top prosecutors.

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"We have to get into a common-sense mode," says Jim Doyle, Wisconsin attorney general, a Democrat. "The country's ready. Whether legislative bodies are ready is another matter."

The politically explosive nature of the debate does not elude the AGs, who are usually careful to reflect the attitudes and gun values of their respective states. Minnesota's attorney general, for example, shares his office with a bear, stuffed and mounted on the wall. But Mike Hatch, a Democrat, is quick to say he didn't shoot it: "I wrestled mine," he jokes.

In general, AGs who serve in states in the Northeast and along the Pacific Ocean are pushing to add new gun-control laws to the books. Those in the South and the mountain West are focusing more on enforcement.

"The pattern is ... different depending on the region," says Larry Sabato, a professor of government at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville. "Proposals are being changed or defeated on the nature of the state."

A report released today, by the New York-based Open Society Institute, shows wide discrepancies between the states when it comes to gun laws. Massachusetts, the report shows, has the strongest gun-control laws. Maine has no laws. The report uses 30 criteria - such as background checks, waiting periods, and child-safety laws - to rank the states. Regional patterns emerged as well, with Southern and Western states ranking lower on average.

The Monitor found that attitudes of state attorneys general are equally divided. Massachusetts Attorney General Tom Reilly (D) has recently imposed mandatory safety regulations - including trigger locks - on all guns, and banned "Saturday night specials." On the other end of the spectrum, Alabama Attorney General Bill Pryor (R) is trying to repeal one of the few gun-control laws the state has - a waiting period for handgun purchases.

Yet in several states, attorneys general are pushing for some additional measures.

"Most law-abiding citizens should be able to possess guns," says Wisconsin's Mr. Doyle. But, he adds, "the gun lobby has been effective in stopping us from reaching a basic, middle-of-the-road position."

One such piece of legislation, in Doyle's eyes, is a measure to end the "gun-show loophole," which allows people to buy handguns at gun shows without being submitted to background checks. Such checks are required for dealer sales in the state.

Oregon Attorney General Hardy Myers (D) backs a similar initiative, which is now circulating for signatures - after it failed to pass in the state legislature.

Indeed, Mr. Myers sees a growing gap between the public and state lawmakers over guns. The school shooting at Thurston High in Springfield, Ore., followed by the one at Colorado's Columbine High, "have intensified public concern about accessibility to firearms,..." he says. "My guess would be that the majority of Oregonians would support more background checks."

Colorado has seen a greater focus on gun control, too, especially since Columbine, says Attorney General Ken Salazar (D). He has offered a package of proposals, along with GOP Gov. Bill Owens, to close the gun-show loophole and tighten penalties for "straw" purchases (buying a gun for someone who cannot legally possess one). But he recognizes that even these measures may not pass in the legislature: "It's a tough sell here in Colorado."

So Mr. Salazar is also stepping up enforcement by supporting Colorado's Project Exile - a campaign to crack down on gun crime, modeled after a successful program in Richmond, Va.

Most Republican attorneys general are solidly in the enforcement camp, but that is no longer a code word for "status quo." Many have boosted their enforcement efforts. Texas Attorney General John Cornyn (R) launched Texas Project Exile, to the tune of $1.6 million, funding eight new special prosecutors who will focus on criminals who use guns.

Yet enforcement isn't necessarily a straightforward path, either. While agreeing that better enforcement is a "key component," Connecticut Attorney General Richard Blumenthal (D) argues that the federal government must play the lead role in that area, because "guns are so easily ... transported from one state to another."

In fact, several attorneys general decry the disparities between federal and state laws - and the resulting difficulties in enforcement. In Iowa, for example, an individual convicted of a misdemeanor such as domestic abuse is prohibited from possessing a firearm under federal law, but not under state law, says Doug Marek, state deputy attorney general for criminal justice.

Likewise, differences between state laws can be problematic - particularly for neighboring states. "Effective gun-safety laws in this state do not do us any good if people can cross the border to get guns," says a spokesman for California Attorney General Bill Lockyer (D).

Still, if enough states go forward with gun-control measures, manufacturers could be forced to follow stricter guidelines across the board - giving state laws a national impact. "If 10 to 15 states enact legislation, I think industry will follow," says Mr. Marek.

* Jeff Kass in Denver contributed to this report.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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