A Sensible Gun Policy

March 02, 1995|By PETER A. JAY

HAVRE DE GRACE — Havre de Grace. -- Joe Curran, Maryland's attorney general, is onto a good idea. It isn't a new one, and it needs some modification, but its time may have come.

In Baltimore and other urban areas, the primary threat to the public health and safety comes from hoodlums carrying guns. So why not, suggests Mr. Curran, have police in these jurisdictions stop and frisk suspicious characters? If they are found to be carrying guns, they can be detained and the guns can be taken away.

This exact proposal was made just a year ago in the New York Times by the eminent James Q. Wilson, who has been writing cogently about crime for almost two decades. It was subsequently promoted in this space. But a year ago, the November elections were still eight months away, and the Wilson proposal sank without a ripple.

Conditions are different now. So is the Maryland legislature. All of a sudden, ideas which weren't considered worth a look a year ago seem filled with promise. And although there are some legitimate objections to Mr. Curran's plan, bold action by the legislature -- with or without the attorney general's leadership -- could clear them away.

Some politicians, especially from Baltimore, are worried that a vigorous stop-and-frisk program might be used to harass law-abiding people just because they happen to be young, black, and male. These are serious concerns and shouldn't be lightly dismissed. The Curran plan will have to address them if it is to succeed.

One of the fatal flaws of most gun-control measures, and the reason they are so controversial, is that they are more commonly used against the law-abiding than against criminals. People who arm themselves for their own protection, or wish to, are much more likely to be adversely affected by such laws than are armed thugs.

On that key point, liberal inner-city residents and conservative boondocks National Rifle Association members ought to find common cause in making the Curran plan workable. If they can, they'll ensure safer streets without infringing on civil rights or civil liberties.

Revision is essential, though. Without it, the Curran plan is dangerous and an invitation to abuse. No jurisdiction, no matter how crime-plagued, will be able to implement it successfully unless it is accompanied with a change in long-established gun policies -- and in entrenched official attitudes.

A vigorous stop-and-frisk gun-control program can only work if two basic conditions are met. First, there must be explicit acceptance of the right of qualified law-abiding citizens to carry weapons, concealed or otherwise. And second, there must be virtually no restriction on the right of any citizen, qualified or not, to own weapons.

The distinction between owning a weapon and carrying one is critical. Efforts to restrict ownership are politically volatile, constitutionally questionable, and practically unenforceable. But the right to carry a weapon in public can be readily limited by local law. There is an obvious parallel here with automobile regulation. Anyone can own an automobile, and drive it on private property. To drive on the public streets you need a license -- which as a matter of public policy is not difficult to obtain. Permits to carry weapons should be issued almost as routinely. Virginia and other states have recently changed their laws to make this possible.

Suppose Baltimore, for example, banned the carrying of firearms by anyone younger than 21 and by anyone convicted, even as a juvenile, of a felony. And then suppose it made a permit to carry a gun in the city comparatively easy to acquire by anyone else, city resident or not, who passed a basic gun-safety course and paid a small annual fee. Such permits would include photos, much like driver's licenses.

This would simplify the right of the law-abiding to arm themselves, if they chose, and make it easy for them to pass through stop-and-frisk patrols. It would simplify the task of the police, too. Those on the streets with guns and without permits would be in clear violation of the law.

At the same time, a local ordinance restricting the carrying of weapons would in no way infringe on the right of American citizens to own them. Locally, the focus would be on guns in the street, where it belongs. Once it is made clear who is authorized to carry a gun and who isn't, stop-and-frisk crackdowns like those proposed by Mr. Curran are much less likely to be interpreted as harassment.

It's possible, of course, that occasionally a person who is up to no good would still manage to qualify for a permit to carry a gun and thus pass unscathed through a police crackdown. But most such people, because of age or criminal record or both, wouldn't qualify.

Properly modified, Attorney General Curran's plan could actually reduce the number of armed predators on the streets of Baltimore, and do so without disarming or harassing the rest of the citizenry. That's a lot more than can be said about previous efforts at gun control.

Peter A. Jay is a writer and farmer.

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