Effort to keep criminals from guns is worth a shot

October 21, 1995|By GREGORY KANE

Dick Willis, the executive director of Marylanders Against Handgun Abuse, is seeking support in unfamiliar places these days: Baltimore area gun dealers.

At a rally held Monday in the 200 block of South Broadway, home of the Baltimore Gunsmith shop, Willis and MAHA urged gun dealers to voluntarily restrict the sale of firearms.

"We [ask] the gun dealers for their support and [want] to set up a dialogue," Willis said. MAHA has a seven-point legislative proposal that it will submit to the General Assembly.

The rally near the Baltimore Gunsmith was to highlight that particular shop's involvement in "straw purchases," the practice of citizens with no criminal records buying guns for felons. According to a study provided by the Bureau of Alcohol, $H Tobacco and Firearms, 25 percent of guns used in Maryland crimes were obtained through straw purchases at Baltimore Gunsmith.

Larry DiMartino, the co-owner of Baltimore Gunsmith, said he was not aware MAHA planned the demonstration.

"Did you really think they'd tell me?" he asked. He had no comment on the ATF study, claiming we newspaper guys always distort his comments. DiMartino also had little to say to Willis, who, as promised, tried to strike up a conversation. But he did have one very astute observation about the effectiveness of handgun control laws, a sentiment I share.

"I think drugs are illegal now but they're everywhere aren't they?" DiMartino noted. He's a wise man, one acquainted with the basic inability of Americans to ban anything.

But Willis says the MAHA legislative proposals are aimed at reducing straw purchases while enabling law-abiding citizens to purchase weapons.

"Not one of them keeps somebody from buying a gun," he claimed. To prove it, he faxed me a copy of MAHA's legislative proposal, which I submit -- with my comments -- for reader edification.

* Require licensing before the purchase of handguns or handgun ammunition. Sounds reasonable. We require licenses before people can take a car on the road. Anti-gun control advocates might point out that second amendment thing, claiming the right to keep and bear arms says nothing about a license. But Willis said the licensing process would require that gun owners be trained and tested in how to shoot, care for and store guns properly, the better to keep them from children. I'd give grudging support to MAHA on this point -- but only because I'm concerned about the safety of kids.

* Limit the number of handguns that an individual can receive or purchase in any one year. Willis said he would like to see gun dealers do this voluntarily. Virginia passed a one-gun-a-month law and "the number of handguns used in out-of-state crimes and traced to Virginia dealers has dropped dramatically," according to MAHA. It would work for me. I certainly don't need more than one gatt (a handgun, for God sakes, for those of you unfamiliar with street lingo) per month. But serious gun collectors might object, on the quite logical reasoning that their hobby should not be curtailed because of criminals.

* Require testing of knowledge of handgun use and risk before purchasing a handgun. Point again to MAHA.

* Prohibit child and spousal abuse offenders from purchasing handguns. Again, I'd support MAHA.

* Ban the sale and manufacture of gun magazines that can hold more than 10 bullets. Absolutely not. The poor shots among us may need more than 10 bullets if someone breaks into our homes.

* Establish stronger penalties, including civil liability, for sellers of handguns to unlicensed individuals. This point assumes the licensing portion will pass. If it does, this point is a logical addendum.

* Require secondary sales of handguns between individuals to be subject to the same regulations -- background check and waiting period -- as handguns bought through dealers. Never, never. Gun sales between private citizens are none of the state's damned business.

"When you put them together, they make a whole lot of sense and have a big impact," Willis said of the proposals. I doubt the gun lobby will agree. According to Willis, pressure from the NRA, the State Pistol and Rifle Association and the Association of Firearm Dealers killed a similar MAHA bill in committee during the 1993 General Assembly session.

The assortment of gun lobbyists probably opposed the bill based on their standard claim: that restricting gun and ammunition sales to law-abiding citizens is wrong and useless because criminals -- who can be quite ingenious little Dickens when they want to be -- will always find a way to get them.

But if we can restrict them from getting guns through straw purchases while still allowing those who want to legally buy handguns a chance to do so, I say let's give it a shot.

Gregory P. Kane's column appears Wednesdays and Saturdays.

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