WASHINGTON -- While President Bush was addressing the nation from Cincinnati about the potential threat Saddam Hussein poses for our nation, folks in and around the nation's capital were grappling with a very real and present terrorist close to home.
They call him "the Sniper."
I am presuming that the Sniper is a "he" because of the knowledge we already have gathered from the similar sickos who came before him. Sure, women kill sometimes, but seldom in such an impersonal way. Serial sniping is, for the most part, a guy thing.
As the president spoke, the Sniper had killed six and injured two other Washington-area victims. One of the critically injured was a 13-year-old boy who had just been dropped off at school by his aunt.
In the Sniper's wake, street life in the nation's capital has turned unusually quiet. Hardly any joggers, bicyclists or kids appear on the streets. Area Starbucks coffeehouses closed their outdoor seating until further notice.
We've got terror right here at home, Mr. President, stirred up by a lunatic with an old-fashioned weapon of mass destruction, a gun. Which brings me to an urgent question: If we respect the constitutional right of people to bear arms until they use those arms to commit crimes, why do we not use all of our available tools to trace bullets and guns used in those crimes?
Federal agents now have the technology to read the markings on bullets or shell casings and store them in a database that can be retrieved by police department computers across the nation. The 3-year-old system is called the National Integrated Ballistics Information Network.
But the gun industry, the National Rifle Association and their friends in Congress have blocked the next logical step, "ballistic fingerprinting." It would mean the test-firing of every gun before it is sold and the keeping of an electronic record of the markings that the weapons leave on the bullets or shell casings. That data could then be kept with the serial numbers of the guns, so that guns used in the commission of a crime could be traced.
But only Maryland and New York have such a ballistic "fingerprinting" system. Efforts to implement a national system have been blocked by the gun lobby, which views it as tantamount to gun registration -- which they view as tantamount to gun confiscation.
Meanwhile, the Sniper is at large. The gun lobby, once again, is feeling the heat, and, as usual, it is fighting back.
Some gun-control opponents actually are using the Sniper to call Maryland's "fingerprinting" system a waste of money, since the Sniper began his reign of terror in that state. But the Sniper really shows how state gun control laws, which can be skirted by crossing state lines, are a lot less effective than national laws.
Opponents of ballistic fingerprinting also argue that criminals can fool the system by making alterations such as changing their gun barrels or firing pins.
"Gun experts know this," Alan Gottlieb, chairman of the Citizens Committee for the Right to Keep and Bear Arms, recently wrote in USA Today. "Ballistic-fingerprint proponents are not gun experts."
But neither are a lot of crooks. The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms' fingerprinting network already is leading to convictions by linking firearms to separate crimes.
But the ATF's network is limited only to guns recovered at crime scenes, not new purchases. Americans need to take the next rational step: Use available technology to link bullets back to the criminals who fired them.
Unfortunately, we have not been able to look to the Bush administration for much sensible reform in this area. Last winter, you may recall, Attorney General John Ashcroft's Justice Department stopped FBI agents from using federal gun purchase records to determine whether terrorism detainees after Sept. 11 had purchased guns. It would violate the privacy of gun buyers, Mr. Ashcroft had assured the NRA, even though Mr. Ashcroft was not showing much concern for other rights of detainees.
"You're either with us or you're with the terrorists," President Bush has said.
Right. And in the gun debate you can be with both.
Clarence Page is a columnist for the Chicago Tribune, a Tribune Publishing company. His column appears Fridays in The Sun. He can be reached via e-mail at email@example.com.