A Better Way Than Gun Control

March 27, 1994|By PETER A. JAY

HAVRE DE GRACE — Corrections and clarifications: A recent column discussed the need for stop-and-frisk laws to check handgun violence. Pat Smith, who is running for attorney general, called to point out that Maryland already has such a law on the books. Whether it's used effectively is, of course, another question. Your correspondent is abashed, and apologizes.

Havre de Grace. -- When this year's gun-control performance in Annapolis is finally, mercifully, concluded, the Maryland General Assembly should get an Oscar for irrelevance.

The debate, primarily over a bill that would ban the sale of several handgun models, has been an exercise in symbolic politics, and therefore predictably heated. But the symbolism is empty. Whether the bill passes or fails, no one seriously expects it to have any discernible impact on crime in general or handgun violence in particular.


Although opponents have said its enactment would be a calamity, that's not really the case either. There will still be plenty of other guns on the market for those who want to buy one, whether their intentions are nefarious or not. Even those few people who might care to purchase one of the exotic weapons specifically proscribed by Schaefer's List will probably be able to do so, either by circumventing the law or just ignoring it.

So why go through with this charade? Because a vote on this bill, whether for it or against it, will be something to posture with at election time later this year. But while election-year posturing is as American as the single-action Colt revolver, in this instance it trivializes discussion of a truly desperate social problem.

Desperate, but not insoluble. There are steps that can and should be taken to reduce gun violence, and which should win the support of reasonable people on both sides of the gun-control chasm.

One, outlined here several weeks ago, would be to accept gun ownership as a basic American right, but restrict -- probably through a state-run licensing program -- the right to carry a gun in public. Those found guilty of carrying an unlicensed weapon could then be dealt with severely.

Another approach, complementary to that one, was discussed by the eminent James Q. Wilson in last Sunday's New York Times. (The place of publication, given the Times' established ga-ga editorial views on most matters dealing with crime and guns, was more remarkable than the down-to-earth suggestions of the author -- an academic who has been thinking and writing about crime for more than 20 years.)

Gun control laws simply don't work, Mr. Wilson says. As a practical matter, there are too many guns to control -- at least in ways acceptable to a democratic society. And politically such laws are absurd, amounting to a statement by the government to its citizens that ''having failed to protect you and your property from criminal assault, [we] now intend to deprive you of the opportunity to protect yourself.''

Many people who oppose gun control advocate, instead, tougher punishment for criminals, including mandatory sentences. Mr. Wilson finds practical problems with that approach too, including the opposition of judges and the willingness of overworked prosecutors to bargain tough sentences away.

We should be concentrating, he says, on getting guns off the streets. How? The answer is so obvious it boggles the mind there could be much debate about it:

''The most effective way . . . is to encourage the police to take guns away from people who carry them without a permit. This means encouraging the police to make street frisks.''

In 1968, the Supreme Court declared that police officers' ''street frisks'' -- patting down a person's outer clothing -- do not violate the Fourth Amendment ban on unreasonable searches and seizures, as long as the officer has reason to consider the person armed and dangerous. (A citizens' complaint could be cause for a frisk. A decade ago, Harvard professor Mark Moore did a study indicating that most weapons arrests came about because of such specific complaints. Neighborhood people know who's carrying and who's not.)

Helpful new technology, such as portable metal detectors, would surely become quickly available to police once the demand for it was apparent. Even without it, experienced police with strong legal and political support ought to be able to clear a block of gun-toters as quickly and effectively as they've demonstrated they can clear it of drug pushers.

Of course there are civil-liberties implications here. No doubt, as Mr. Wilson acknowledges, young black men would be frisked more than older whites, or women of any race. Police guidelines would have to be carefully spelled out. Ideally, there should be different guidelines for different jurisdictions, depending on local circumstances and the wishes of the community.

Baltimore, where the problem of gun violence is so pronounced, could become a national example here. It has an aggressive but savvy new police chief, a respected black prosecutor and a black mayor with a criminal-justice background and what appears to be a new determination to tackle crime head-on. That's a great beginning.

New state stop-and-frisk laws may not be necessary to encourage police to start taking guns away from the people who shouldn't have them, but they would help. Maybe the next legislature will be serious enough to take up the issue. Unfortunately this one, busy with its farcical gun- control games, isn't.

4( Peter A. Jay is a writer and farmer.

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