Toward smarter gun laws

The National Rifle Association made it clear George W. Bush was their candidate. But as Attorney General Ashcroft's confirmation hearings showed, that does not mean that gun violence is going to disappear from the national agenda, as it did somewhat mysteriously from the campaign. There is a significant amount of common ground among moderates on both sides of the gun-control issue.

It will be difficult for the new Bush administration to ignore the problem. The costs simply are too high. Our research suggests that the annual burden of gun violence in America, including the costs of prevention, avoidance, amelioration, and injury, is in the order of $100 billion, which averages to $1,000 per household - and that's after taking account of the 40-percent drop in gun crime since 1993. A successful effort to sustain this healthy trend would be worth more to many of us than the promised tax cut.

Stepped-up enforcement of existing gun laws is one approach that enjoys broad support. The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms (ATF), which is responsible for regulating gun sales and combating gun trafficking, has been a political football since its creation in 1972.

But the Clinton administration vigorously supported ATF's regulatory and enforcement mandate, including a broad attack on all phases of illegal gun use - illegal acquisition, transfer, possession, and misuse of guns. Reacting positively to the enhanced mission, Congress has provided this agency with new investigative tools, and, in its most recent appropriation, expanded resources for agents and inspectors. All that is required in this area is to stay the course and to continue to encourage ATF-local cooperation in combating gun violence. It appears that Attorney General Ashcroft has embraced this approach.

In the same spirit, few would object if the new attorney general sustained the recent efforts by federal prosecutors to work with local officials in combating gun violence and exposing gun-toting felons, corrupt dealers, and youth gang members to severe penalties.

A number of jurisdictions - such as Richmond, Va., with Project Exile, and Boston with its comprehensive Project Ceasefire - have benefited from this effort.

As governor of Texas, Mr. Bush pledged to support a program to provide free trigger locks. As president, he could take the logical next step and support on-going Department of Justice efforts to develop and test personalized-gun technology.

This technology holds great promise for saving lives by making guns inoperable to unauthorized users, including despondent teenagers, curious children, or the criminals who are responsible for around 500,000 gun thefts per year. Currently 71 percent of all adults (and even 59 percent of gun owners) support requirements that all new handguns be sold with personalized gun technology.

Of course, if Bush were bold enough to move beyond the NRA's political positions, he could send legislation to Congress to close down the gaping loophole in our current regulatory system. As things now stand, fully 30 to 40 percent of all gun exchanges each year in America do not involve a licensed gun dealer, and are thus almost completely exempt from existing background-check and other regulations. Not surprisingly, this so-called "secondary gun market" is the source of the vast majority of the guns used in crime.

One way to help prevent the diversion of guns to teens and convicted felons in the secondary gun market would be to require that gun dealers report the serial numbers to ATF for all of the guns they sell. This reporting requirement would make it easier for law enforcement to trace crime guns, and thus help provide the information necessary to identify traffickers who buy new guns from dealers and re-sell them privately without background checks. A still more effective step would be to require all secondary-market sales to go through licensed dealers and thus be subject to the same regulations as sales of new guns.

President Bush has promised he will leave narrow partisanship behind and find a way to move ahead on important policy issues. Reducing gun violence is surely important.

The Clinton administration has demonstrated the possibility of effective action within the scope of existing law.

Still more could be accomplished with modest amendments that extend sensible regulations while preserving the law-abiding public's access to guns for sport and self-protection.

Philip J. Cook is ITT/Sanford Professor of Public Policy at Duke University. Jens Ludwig is assistant professor of public policy at Georgetown University. Mr. Cook and Mr. Ludwig are the authors of 'Gun Violence: The Real Costs' (Oxford University Press, New York, fall 2000).

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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