Guns and politics

March 04, 2004

SOMEWHERE Ali Boumelhem must be smiling. He's the terrorist and Hezbollah member who was observed buying a gun at a Michigan gun show and was later arrested for smuggling. The U.S. Senate has killed legislation that would have closed the so-called gun show loophole, preserving the right of evil-doers such as Mr. Boumelhem to obtain weapons without those inconvenient background checks.

This is the state of gun policy in the United States today - too many politicians are unwilling to support sensible limits on the sale of guns. Not even when these regulations would trip up terrorists. Nor can Congress manage to extend the 10-year-old ban on military-style assault weapons. Even when opinion surveys show time and again that the public overwhelmingly supports extending the ban, not to mention getting rid of the gun show loophole.

On Tuesday, the Senate took a bad bill that would have granted legal immunity to the firearms industry and attached these two sensible measures, and then promptly killed the whole thing at the behest of Republican leadership. The most encouraging result is that the immunity bill, the National Rifle Association's top priority, has been dealt a major setback - and it was done with a demonstration of bipartisan support for gun control. Of course, NRA supporters can also claim a victory of sorts - Mr. Boumelhem is no doubt ready to join their cause.

Just as troubling for Maryland is that a modest effort to ban assault rifles in this state is now as good as dead, too. The state senator with the swing vote on the Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee has announced he'll vote against it. John A. Giannetti Jr., a Prince George's County Democrat, claimed in a statement that he didn't want to hurt conservatives in his party. His constituents need to remember this irresponsible and politically craven decision.

The same committee has a chance to redeem itself. Yesterday, the senators heard testimony on Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller's proposal to gut Maryland's safety lock law by letting gun manufacturers offer ineffective external locks on new handguns instead of requiring locks that are built-in. The bill deserves to be cast aside; the arguments for it just aren't convincing.

The next step back to gun sanity on the national level is up to President Bush and Congress. Mr. Bush claims to support the assault weapons ban and the closing of the gun show loophole, but it's hard to tell from his actions - or inactions.

The proposals need to be resurrected. A majority of the Senate clearly supports them, and with Mr. Bush's backing, the measures could become law. At least then the terrorists and other villains would have to find other means to hurt the innocent.

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