Lessons From a Sniper's Gun

For less than $1,000, virtually anyone in the US could buy a Bushmaster XM-15 rifle, the gun linked to 10 of the Washington, D.C., area sniper attacks.

Loopholes in existing gun laws create the possibility that this particular gun could have been bought without a background check. Federal agents say they've found no records to show how the alleged shooter, John Allen Muhammad, even acquired the weapon.

It was traced back to a gun store in Tacoma, Washington, but the store has no record of its sale, and the FBI's instant check system, which should have kicked in on any sale at the licensed gun dealer's shop, didn't pick it up.

Not only that, but Mr. Muhammad shouldn't have had access to this assault-weapon look-alike, which is a version of the Army's M-16. Federal law prohibits anyone under a domestic restraining order of a court (as he was) to carry such a gun.

Clearly, this case signals big problems in the nation's gun-control laws, and also points to a need to clean up sloppy record-keeping at gun stores.

Guns, including the Bushmaster, are freely available, and routinely sold through newspaper classified ads and at gun shows. Background checks are not required at gun shows if the seller is not a licensed gun dealer. Statistics show such person-to-person sales account for 40 percent of guns sold in the US.

Licensing gun owners, and requiring them to register their guns in a national database, would be little different from the current practice of states requiring drivers to obtain a license and register their vehicles. Why shouldn't gun owners, like drivers, be required to be registered, trained, and keep a good record?

A federal law that bans assault-weapons will "sunset" on Sept. 30, 2004. Not only should this 1994 law be renewed, it should be toughened and broadened to include guns like the Bushmaster, manufactured just after the assault-weapons ban took effect, and now broadly marketed and sold as a "post-ban carbine" weapon. Its semi-automatic capability can be easily converted for rapid, repeat-fire use, a feature now illegal under the ban.

Manufacturers both in the US and overseas that can now get around the assault-weapons ban obviously violate the spirit, if not the letter, of the existing law.

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