Losing the War on Guns


January 10, 1993|By WILEY A. HALL III

Last week, a federal grand jury in Richmond indicted 17 alleged members of three separate gunrunning conspiracies that police say supplied weapons to criminals up and down the East Coast.

On New Year's Eve, federal authorities arrested a 17-year-old and seized a cache of weapons from his home, including two MAC-11 semiautomatic handguns and a clone of the AK-47 assault weapon. Police allege the teen-ager had planned to sell the weapons on the streets in Washington, D.C.

And last fall, federal authorities shut down a Virginia gun shop they claim was one of the largest sources of illegal firearms in New York City.

Law enforcement officials, of course, are inordinately proud of these arrests. One prosecutor predicted that other illegal gun dealers "will be trembling" when they hear the news. But for the rest of us, these same arrests raise some uncomfortable questions: Where do all of these weapons come from? What is being done to stem the underground traffic in illegal firearms?

The answer to that second question is: Not much.

For all of the indignation expressed over the record violence that has gripped Baltimore and other cities, it is all but taken for granted that drug dealers, maniacs and teen-agers can put their hands on any firearm they want, any time they want. Even among my colleagues in the media, the focus appears to be on the fact that a 13-year-old has a gun, rather than on the highly profitable conspiracy that put that gun in his hands.

"This country made a conscious decision toward the end of the Carter administration and during the Reagan and Bush administrations that we would treat with benign neglect with regard to firearm regulation," said Stuart O. Simms, the Baltimore City states attorney. "Even when we put together strict handgun laws, the actual agencies charged with regulation and enforcement of those laws are so restricted by lack of funding that they are all but ineffective."

"I think we have gone a little bit nuts in this country," said Col. Leonard Supenski, of the Baltimore County police department. "There is a prevailing myth that all we have to do is lock up the bad guys and that if we lock up the bad guys the millions and

millions of guns out there won't hurt us."

Indeed, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms, the federal agency directly charged with investigating gunrunning conspiracies, is one of the most underfunded, undermanned enforcement agencies in the country.

While most local police departments have divisions devoted to narcotics, none of them has a comparable squad investigating the firearms trade.

Said Mr. Simms: "The gun traffic, when we have pursued it at all, is usually investigated as an adjunct to either a drug or a homicide investigation." At the same time, however, authorities concede that the traffic in illegal firearms is at least as energetic (and profitable) as the traffic in narcotics.

The black market is fed from a variety of sources, investigators say. One source follows the heroin trail up Interstate 95 from Miami and Virginia. Conspirators have been known to purchase weapons in bulk from Southern states with comparatively lax controls for sale in cities such as Washington, Baltimore and New York. People arrive in town, sell a trunk-load of weapons on the street, then disappear again.

Other weapons are diverted from shipments arriving at East Coast ports from manufacturers in Europe or from parcel deliverers. Recently, gun shops in the Baltimore and Washington areas were plagued by a ring of "smash and grab" thieves.

But law enforcement officials say their biggest problem in investigating gun trafficking is that it is so easy for criminals to circumvent the laws. With a fake name and $60, almost anyone can become a licensed firearms dealer, ordering all the modern weapons they desire in bulk through catalogs. Since there are no regulations restricting the sale of used guns, all anyone needs is a classified sales section. Another uncontrolled source of weapons are gun shows, such as the one being held in Timonium this weekend. Police say guns purchased legally are sold and resold on the streets at several times their original value.

"It is like a Persian bazaar out there," said Colonel Supenski. "The mark-up is phenomenal. Guns probably are our second biggest cash crop behind drugs."

Common sense would suggest that we pour the same kind of resources into the War on Guns that we have poured into the War on Drugs. Or perhaps not. After two decades of effort and billions upon billions of dollars, drugs are as plentiful and easily available as ever.

( It is quite a conundrum.

Wiley Hall is a columnist for The Evening Sun.

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