Gun Law Cross-Fire

SEN. Bob Dole's backing for repeal of the federal ban on the sale of assault weapons is only one in a volley of reports about gun-law developments. And Senator Dole's action is easy to understand: By courting the National Rifle Association, he hopes to solidify conservative support for his presidential quest.

That may help the senator next year in New Hampshire, a largely rural state with a strong gun contingent, but it could have politically dangerous ricochets elsewhere. Some four-fifths of Americans back the ban on 19 types of semi-automatic assault weapons.

A little harder to grasp is the move in more than a dozen states to make it easier for citizens to carry concealed weapons. Whether this reflects a pervasive fear of crime, a lack of faith in the local police, or a longing for bygone frontier justice, it's a sad commentary. Researchers at the University of Maryland found that the number of people killed by guns has gone up in some areas that have relaxed gun-carrying laws -- though not all, which suggests more research is needed.

A loosening of gun laws in some jurisdictions is offset by the tightening represented by the Brady law, passed last year by Congress. That law has reportedly prevented 45,000 convicted felons from buying handguns from legitimate dealers.

This statistic leaves open the question of whether these people eventually obtained guns from other sources. But it indicates, nonetheless, that the law's provisions are having some of their intended effect.

The Brady law also made it much tougher for people to get a federal license to sell guns. That has reduced the numbers of federally licensed gun merchants -- who often operate informally out of their homes -- by some 60,000. That reduction will grow as current licenses expire.

Mr. Dole's target, the assault-weapons ban, is still a question mark so far as measurable impact is concerned, though law enforcement officials note that the street price of assault guns has jumped since the ban went into effect last summer, putting them out of reach for some would-be buyers. Of course, drug lords and many others who want them can still get them.

The bigger issue is what the ban says about the sanity of the rest of society when it comes to such weapons. That message should override short-range political tactics.

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