The Way to Control Guns

Background checks, waiting periods, and clear goals

Calls for gun control have never been louder. A majority of Americans favor stronger gun laws. More police chiefs and governors back them. Progress toward curbing commerce in firearms is moving forward in many states. California has new laws that limit handgun purchases to one a month and ban the sale of assault weapons.

Yet gun control still swims against strong political currents, especially in Washington.

That's because those lobbying against increased regulation of guns, representing a vocal minority, are highly organized, highly motivated, and well-funded. But the recent mass shootings in America have given new energy to the antigun side. Pressure on political candidates to face this issue in the 2000 campaign is already rising.

Candidates should expect to give something more than pro forma endorsement of such measures as background checks on gun purchasers, on the one hand, and standard anti-gun-control slogans, on the other.

The leading GOP presidential candidate, Gov. George W. Bush of Texas, chimed in with one of the latter recently, intoning that the best way to reduce gun violence is to "make sure we prosecute" people who commit crimes with guns. How does that keep guns out of the hands of alienated teens or hate-group fanatics?

No, most Americans would like to hear a well-thought-out plan of action to get a grip on the country's gun problem. Here's a suggested road map:

*Enact a bill already approved by the Senate mandating background checks of purchasers at gun shows. The House version doesn't have this measure, and its inclusion in final legislation is problematic. Incredibly, these shows, which account for millions of gun transactions each year, are virtually unregulated.

Recent gun-show patrons of note have included Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVey and Buford Furrow, the white supremacist now jailed in connection with the Aug. 10 shooting in Los Angeles.

*Either reinstate the federal mandatory waiting period for gun purchasers (a Brady law provision that was phased out last year), or greatly tighten the current "instant check" system.

This system, advocated by the pro-gun lobby because it does away with the inconvenience of a waiting period, is only as good as the data fed into it by state agencies. Some estimate the system includes only about half the needed information, which should include mental-health records and court-imposed restraining orders as well as criminal records.

*Clearly set ultimate goals for gun control. Confusion over the final aims has hurt the cause.

Let's acknowledge that we must license all gun owners and register every gun sold. Yes, that's politically difficult, but it's the surest way to make weapons traceable and enforce their responsible use - just as we do with motor vehicles. This is hardly a radical idea. It was advocated by former Surgeon General C. Everett Koop seven years ago. Democrat Bill Bradley is at present the lone presidential contender calling for this step.

Candidates taking a credible stand on gun control will face heated questions about the constitutional "right to keep and bear arms." They'll have to explain that this "right" occurs in the context of a "well regulated militia."

The central question is whether Americans can be brought together to address a grave national problem. Those aspiring for high office can help provide an answer.

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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