Rush to judgment

October 20, 2002

IT'S ONLY NATURAL that the sniper terrorizing the Washington suburbs has inspired a lot of talk about guns, and the laws that regulate them.

The utter randomness of these shootings means everyone -- even those who previously thought gun policy had nothing to do with their lives -- now has reason to wonder whether enough is being done to keep firearms from criminals. Are the laws we have sufficient? Do they even work? Are more restrictive measures justified?

Those questions deserve a thorough public airing, not just in Maryland and Virginia, but throughout the United States. And without question, there are too many guns in circulation, and too many ways for those with criminal intent to get hold of them.

However, fear raised by the sniper's actions shouldn't be an excuse to rush ineffective or illogical measures into law. It shouldn't make the regulation of firearms -- already a cumbersome and bureaucratic endeavor thanks to the sheer number of guns produced and sold in this country -- even more unwieldy.

Example: The sniper has revived debate over ballistic fingerprinting laws, and spurred some calls for an expansion of these laws to include rifles like the one the killer is probably using.

That's probably a bad idea.

Ballistic fingerprinting is already in use in Maryland and New York for handguns. It requires that each handgun, before it is sold, be fired. A bullet casing from the gun must be forwarded to police, who record the gun's firing "signature" in a database.

Theoretically, that should enable authorities to match guns with bullets found at crime scenes, thus helping to solve the crimes. And in time, it probably will.

But the system is costly and burdensome with little short-term payoff; in Maryland, some 17,000 weapons have been cataloged, but only two cases have been aided by the system since it began two years ago.

Adding rifles and some legal assault weapons to the mix would boost costs and further stretch resources, and it wouldn't likely make a big dent in gun crimes. It might help catch someone like the suburb sniper, but it wouldn't necessarily.

Smarter approaches could have better immediate success.

Tighter enforcement of existing gun laws, for example, would be a good start. Maryland, in particular, has some of the toughest gun laws in the country, but doesn't always make the most of them. An example is the recent snafu in which some required background checks were not performed because of a bureaucratic mix-up.

Moreover, this country can't continue to ignore a fundamental reality about guns and crime: They may not account for motive or intention, but they offer opportunity. As long as that opportunity exists in abundance, no one is safe.

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