Congress misfires

July 02, 2006

Two weeks ago, Maryland U.S. Attorney Rod J. Rosenstein and officials from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives announced a campaign to teach people how to detect and prevent "straw" purchases of guns.

The effort to deter illegal gun sales is probably a good idea, particularly if gun dealers take the message to heart. After all, studies have shown that more than half of the guns used to commit crimes come from 1 percent of gun suppliers.

But a far better idea would be to let the general public and police agencies know exactly who has been providing these guns to criminals and more closely scrutinize them. Amazingly, Congress has been moving in exactly the opposite direction. A House committee may soon pass two pieces of legislation that would not only block the disclosure of crime gun trace data (information that's already too tightly controlled) but make it far more difficult for the ATF to prosecute rogue gun sellers or revoke the licenses of gun dealers who break the law.

These measures are a sharp contrast to New York Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg's recent lawsuit against 15 out-of-state gun dealers whose weapons wound up in the hands of New York criminals. More than 50 mayors have expressed support for Mr. Bloomberg's campaign against illegal guns, including Baltimore Mayor Martin O'Malley. Some members of the City Council are also pushing to have Baltimore file a similar lawsuit.

Getting illegal guns off the street ought to be a federal priority as well. But it appears that, once again, members of Congress are more interested in protecting gun dealers and manufacturers than in protecting the victims of crime. Not only would the proposed legislation put a stranglehold on federal data on gun sales, but the bills also would weaken gun laws in a variety of ways, including eliminating the requirement that dealers notify local law enforcement of multiple handgun sales (such guns are more often used in crimes), and sharply reduce the penalties for certain dealer violations.

Here's the topper: Under the proposals, police officers who shared federal gun trace data outside their agency would be open to criminal prosecution. Even the Justice Department worried that this provision would have a "chilling effect" on enforcement.

Enough is enough. Washington can't cave in to the gun lobby again, not when 30,000 Americans are killed each year by guns. The ATF data ought to be available to any jurisdiction that wants to fight back against criminals and the unprincipled gun sellers who supply them.

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