To Insure Domestic Tranquillity

November 10, 1993

A new poll (ABC/Day One) shows nearly twice as many Americans cite "crime" and "illegal drugs" as the most important social issue than cite "health care." Against that backdrop, Congress is rushing to get on record as tough on crime.

The House, which passed an omnibus crime bill last week, is scheduled to vote on the Brady Bill today. This is the bill that requires a five-day waiting period for the purchase of a handgun. The waiting period allows law enforcement agencies to check to see if a would-be purchaser is an ineligible ex-felon or mental incompetent. The Senate may vote on the bill soon, too. Though "Brady" would have minimal impact on violent crime, it is still a worthwhile effort (every little bit helps) and deserves support.

What does not deserve support is the effort by its opponents to change it in ways that would weaken state efforts to combat crime. They would do this by making Brady pre-emptive. Maryland's seven-day waiting period would immediately be reduced to five and ultimately to zero, and the state could never strengthen its handgun law, as other states have in the past, with permit requirements, fingerprint identification, one-a-month limits on handgun purchases, etc.

Meanwhile, the Senate is struggling to conclude action on the "Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act." Much of what the senators are doing is posturing for legions of voters for whom violent crime is the No. 1 issue. After all, 95 percent of violent crime is not subject to federal law and almost that high TC percentage of spending on controlling crime is state and local.

But as Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., reminded his colleagues in debate, after quoting from its preamble, "Our entire Constitution is founded on the notion that [the national government] will 'insure the domestic tranquillity' of this country."

The heart of the Senate bill, once you get past the bombast and add-ons (covering everything from arson to pornography as well as murder and sentencing), is to provide states and localities some $22 billion over the next five years to build more prisons, especially for those who commit drug-related crimes of violence, and to put more police on the streets. Both are highly desirable goals. Our only concern is that like so much federal legislation in recent years, this requires states and localities to meet fairly inflexible federal standards to get the funds, and the funds have matching requirements that favor well-to-do communities over poorer ones. It is the latter communities, of course, that need additional police more.

Nonetheless, it is encouraging to see street crime bring together Democrats and Republicans, liberals and conservatives in the Capitol agreeing to do something about crime. The nation -- especially its big cities -- cannot take much more murder-a-day violence.

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