Guns and Youths

When President Clinton announced a new program to crack down on juvenile crime by tracing the weapons used by youths to the original gun dealer, Republican challenger Bob Dole shot back that the initiative was not, in fact, new.

In one respect, he's right. The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms launched an effort more than two years ago to track down the source of juvenile firearms. The idea made good sense then, as it does now. All guns made in the US or imported here must have a serial number and can initially be sold only by federally licensed firearms dealers. Youths, furthermore, tend to prefer newer guns, which are easier to trace. The problem was, local police often didn't report to the ATF when they seized a gun.

Clinton's new - or renewed - program seems to have a better chance of success. Law-enforcement officers in 17 cities have signed agreements with the federal government to report to the ATF when they seize a gun from a juvenile. The ATF - with $2 million in additional enforcement money - will then use its new computer system to track down the weapon source.

Pilot programs in Boston and New York have shown this can work. In New York, federal agents traced to one store in Alabama 4,000 guns that had been seized. In Boston, police say the combined efforts of federal, state, and local law-enforcement agencies are a key reason no juveniles have been killed by guns here this year.

The initiative isn't perfect - teenagers, for instance, could start buying older guns, which are harder to trace. And by itself, it won't solve the problem of youth crime. But it's worth a try - another try, that is.

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