A better route to gun control than the Brady bill . . .

Leslie Paradise

April 15, 1991|By Leslie Paradise

THE GUN-BAN lobby's quest for the mother of all gun controls got a boost recently when former President Reagan announced his support for the Brady bill and its waiting period on handgun sales. The crusade needed an infusion of legitimacy, not just because the lobby's arguments have been discredited, but because it has refused to support a proposed gun control measure that would effectively prevent felons and fugitives from buying handguns.

Maybe the Brady bill advocates oppose that measure because they resent the idea of siding with what they call the "radical gun lobby" on a sensible, reasonable and workable gun control law. Or maybe they resent the idea of gun laws aimed specifically at felons and fugitives.

The current debate is not over gun control versus no gun control, as Brady bill advocates would have it. Because the "radical gun lobby" has offered a viable alternative to the demonstrably ineffective waiting period in the Brady bill, this debate focuses on what degree of gun control is needed.

To the gun-ban lobby, the necessary degree of control is represented by the Brady bill, which would establish a seven-day waiting period on all handgun purchases. Brady proponents offer the bill as a means of regulating unlawful access to handguns, with only minor inconvenience to law-abiding handgun buyers.

The bill itself belies that claim. It would not require mandatory background checks on any gun buyers. Such screenings would be left to individual states to impose -- but only if the states choose to do so. The Brady bill would thus require what its sponsors usually decry: a patchwork of conflicting state laws that could never work without a uniform federal base.

Precisely because this bill would not mandate federal background checks, out-of-state felons and fugitives who may not have criminal histories in the state of purchase could not be identified and would not be denied access to guns. Circumvention of the federal ban on interstate handgun transfers would not be prevented under the Brady bill, again because of the conspicuous absence of a requirement for uniform federal criminal records checks.

So much for crime control under the Brady bill! In any realistic application of its provisions, in order for the law to reach the measure of effectiveness promised by its supporters more than half the states would need to enact supplemental legislation to plug the bill's gaping loopholes. It thus smacks of yet another half-baked attempt to breed and foster restrictive gun laws in state legislatures across the country.

The other pending bill would need no such jurisdictional supplements. The "radical gun lobby's" proposal would forgo the unnecessary waiting period and require a nationwide system to instantly identify ineligible handgun buyers at the point of sale. // Sorry, no seven-day vacations for interstate gun runners here.

This bill would provide what the gun-ban lobby has demanded for years: a uniform federal identification network designed to keep guns out of the wrong hands. By requiring gun dealers to conduct on-the-spot federal and state background checks, law-enforcement personnel would be freed of the costly and burdensome task of reviewing tens of thousands of handgun applications each year. (The Maryland State Police conduct an average 25,000 checks annually, most of which are ultimately approved.)

In opposing this measure, the Brady bill's supporters are suggesting, in effect, that the police officer who processes handgun applications provides a more valuable service to the community than does the officer who is free to patrol the streets. Whatever Ronald Reagan may say, this hardly constitutes "plain common sense."

To the "radical gun lobby," crime control is best served by targeting the players: the felons, the fugitives, the violently lawless. But to the gun-ban people, the best approach is to inconvenience the spectators, to discourage as many lawful handgun sales as possible through punitive impediments on the acquisition of all handguns. Somehow, then, the violently lawless will be disarmed, or so the thinking goes. In this sense, Reagan is an appropriate front man for the Brady bill, which represents a trickle-down theory of supply-side crime control.

No matter which proposal ultimately prevails in Congress, handgun buyers here would not be affected. Maryland's gun control laws are far more restrictive than the minimum standards proposed under the Brady bill, and the state's seven-day waiting period would not be threatened by an instant background check.

Still, it's now up to Congress to decide whether crime control is better served by focusing on the criminals who commit violent acts than by focusing on law-abiding citizens who are the victims of those criminals.

Leslie Paradise writes from Middle River.

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