A RECENT study reported Maryland had the highest rate of handgun murders involving juveniles among the 50 states from 1995 through 1999. Some might take this as evidence that the state's gun laws are ineffective.
But there are several reasons why such a conclusion is premature, at best.
First, longstanding problems with gun violence led to the enactment of new gun control laws in Maryland. Our state ranks high in youth homicides because, compared with other states, its population is more urban and suffers from the many social ills of concentrated urban poverty.
For example, Baltimore, which is primarily responsible for Maryland's high rate of youth homicides, has one of the highest rates of drug addiction among U.S. cities.
Second, some of Maryland's gun laws, such as the ballistic fingerprint requirement for new handguns, went into effect after the 1995-1999 study period. Others, such as banning bulk handgun purchases and requiring background checks for handguns sold by private individuals, became law in October 1996.
It is unrealistic to expect these new laws to immediately reverse Maryland's longstanding problem with violent crime.
But our research suggests that the 1996 laws were associated with a reduction in homicides during the first two years they were in place. We have also found that highly concealable "Saturday night specials," handguns that were banned by Maryland in 1990, are now much less available to criminals.
Rather than view Maryland's high ranking on juvenile gun homicides as evidence of failure of recent laws, we should see it as a wake-up call.
We have the opportunity to make Baltimore and Maryland national leaders by taking the necessary steps to keep guns out of the hands of youths and criminals.
The weak link in Maryland's current system is the ease with which "straw" gun purchases can occur, particularly when shady gun dealers are involved. (These transactions involve legal purchasers buying guns on behalf of criminals or juveniles.)
As a deterrent to straw sales, many states require handgun purchasers to go to the police to apply for a purchase permit. Identification is scrutinized and applicants are fingerprinted. Our research shows that these requirements, when coupled with handgun registration systems like Maryland's, make it much harder for criminals to get guns.
But in Maryland, handgun purchase applications are based on the "honor system." Gun dealers are trusted to comply with the law and put public safety ahead of profit. But there is plenty of evidence that some dealers allow or even directly facilitate many illegal gun sales.
Nationally, 1 percent of gun dealers sold more than half of the guns that were subsequently traced to crime. The time between the sale of guns by these dealers and crime involvement also tends to be unusually short -- an indicator of illegal straw sales and trafficking.
Prosecution of gun dealers who facilitate these illegal transactions is very difficult. Strangely, the violation isn't deemed serious enough under current state law to allow taped "body wire" evidence from police stings that are pivotal in such cases. This must change.
For Maryland's gun laws to be most effective in getting guns off the streets, they must be enforced.
In recent years, Maryland state police have devoted more resources to gun law enforcement. But more is clearly needed, and the state police's jurisdiction is limited. More than half of Maryland's gun homicides occur in Baltimore City. The state police's gun investigative unit should be working in the city, but hasn't been given permission to do so.
There was a substantial reduction in gun violence in many cities starting in the mid-1990s. In most instances, disarming gang members and violent criminals was made a top priority, and special gun units were deployed to accomplish this task.
Much more could be done in Baltimore along these lines. Our current criminal justice policies focus almost exclusively on punishing criminals after they shoot someone. We must also go after the people supplying criminals with their deadly weapons.
The overwhelming majority of citizens, including gun owners, want stricter gun laws and for law enforcement to crack down on illegal gun sales and carrying. What are we waiting for?
Daniel Webster is co-director of the Johns Hopkins Center for Gun Policy and Research at the Bloomberg School of Public Health in Baltimore.