IN RECENT years, federal prosecutors across the country have gone after gun-toting criminals in greater numbers than people who buy and sell guns illegally. It's a disturbing trend that suggests government officials are focusing on half the problem. And it raises questions about Attorney General John Ashcroft's assertion that "a record level of safety has been achieved for all Americans."
When Mr. Ashcroft made that claim last month during an appearance in New York, he boasted about his office's record in prosecuting gun crimes -- it was up 68 percent. But what Mr. Ashcroft failed to mention is that federal authorities relied on gun possession cases made by local law enforcement to support the increase. That's what Sun reporter Laura Sullivan found when she reviewed federal gun crime policy. Federal prosecutors and agents from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives spent most of their time on felons after they got their hands on weapons or used them to murder, rob, kidnap or threaten someone. They focused on only two out of 22 federal gun laws.
Don't misunderstand: Criminals in possession of a gun and persons charged with gun crimes should be prosecuted to the full extent of the law. But federal prosecutors also must place as high a priority on those who lie to buy a gun or dealers who look the other way when selling guns to questionable people. Because if they don't, no one else will. Federal authorities have nearly exclusive jurisdiction over these crimes. And, if law enforcement officers are only going after criminals with guns, they will always be reacting to crime instead of trying to prevent it.
Federal gun prosecution cases here reflect the national trend, according to a survey by the advocacy group Americans for Gun Safety.
Of 801 federal firearms cases prosecuted in Maryland between October 1999 and September 2003, the survey found that 768 were for violations of laws barring felons from having a gun and the use of a gun in crimes of violence and drug trafficking. No lawbreaking gun dealers were prosecuted during that time, the group said.
Policing gun dealers isn't a top priority. A report this summer by the Justice Department's inspector general bears this out. It found that federal prosecutions of gun traffickers, persons who lie on criminal background checks and suspect gun dealers dropped 11 percent between fiscal years 2000 and 2003. Gun advocates like to point out that the majority of criminals don't get their guns legally. That's true, but federal statistics show that about a third of weapons used in crimes were bought illegally from gun dealers.
Those businesses may account for only 1 percent of the 104,000 licensed gun dealers in America, but disreputable gun dealers shouldn't be above the law.