Virginia Bites the Bullet

February 14, 1993

Now that Virginia's legislature appears certain to pass some form of restriction on the purchase of handguns, can Baltimoreans look for relief from the crime wave that has plagued this city in recent years? Only if you take the long view.

Virginia Gov. L. Douglas Wilder's plan to limit residents to one handgun purchase a month is a significant step. Virginia's notoriously lax gun laws have made the state a prime source of weapons that wind up in criminal hands. Guns purchased legally in Virginia have turned up at crime scenes in cities throughout the Mid-Atlantic region.

Typically, illegal arms merchants recruit straw purchasers to serve as fronts for buying dozens of handguns from legitimate gun shops over the space of a few days or weeks. Young, poor women are often coaxed into such schemes in exchange for small amounts of cash or drugs.

Since the women are Virginia residents with no criminal records, these straw purchasers can legally obtain as many weapons as the illegal dealer can pay for -- no questions asked. The dealer then resells the guns to criminal organizations.

Authorities say the majority of guns found at crime scenes in such cities as Washington, D.C., were purchased legally in Virginia through such scams. Virginia guns have been turning up in cities as far away as Philadelphia and New York.

Governor Wilder's bill would limit state residents to a maximum of one handgun purchase a month. The Virginia House passed the bill, but the Senate passed a compromise proposal allowing multiple handgun purchases if the buyer obtains a certificate from the state police. A compromise appears likely. That would be a victory for gun control advocates who say the state's liberal gun laws have made it an arsenal for criminal groups.

No one expects a new Virginia law to result in a quick end to the carnage on the streets of Baltimore and Washington. Ultimately that can only be accomplished with tough federal gun measures.

Yet Virginia's action signals a new determination by legislators there to do what they can to make it harder for criminals to obtain guns, despite powerful opposition. Virginia's example is one that Maryland lawmakers would also do well to heed.

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