Taking on the NRA

June 28, 2007

Through its influence and lobbying in Washington, the National Rifle Association in the past has been able to limit the use of federal data that trace the ownership of guns used in crimes. But this year, the NRA has run into a small problem: Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski is using her power and influence to block reauthorization of the gun-trace restrictions - and it's worth the fight.

Gun violence is ravaging cities like Baltimore, where nearly all murder victims are killed by guns, and shootings have steadily increased. It's a problem in Detroit, Jersey City, N.J., Washington and New York, where Mayor Michael Bloomberg has led the charge to repeal the gun-trace provision, named for Kansas Rep. Todd Tiahrt, a Republican.

Under the NRA-backed amendment to a spending bill, the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives can only release the origin of a gun sale to police in cases of individual crimes as part of an ongoing investigation. That's a needless restriction that makes it difficult for law enforcement - and policymakers - to review gun trace data across jurisdictions, a procedure that could help identify trends in illegal gun sales and pinpoint dealers who are breaking the law.

What's more, Johns Hopkins University researchers have found that proper regulation and oversight, coupled with undercover sting operations, can influence - and, ideally, help stem - the flow of illegal guns.

As the new chairwoman of the Senate Appropriation Subcommittee on Commerce, Justice, Science and Related Agencies, Ms. Mikulski stripped the gun-trace restrictions from the U.S. Department of Justice spending bill this week. But gun-rights supporters are girding for a fight when the full committee meets today: An even tougher measure that would penalize police who use gun-trace information to identify suspect gun sales beyond one case may be in the works.

That's an affront to good policing; it should be defeated.

And if gun-rights supporters overtake Ms. Mikulski's good efforts, the senator's Maryland colleagues in the House have to carry on the fight. Eliminating the Tiahrt amendment would strengthen initiatives in Baltimore - and soon, suburban Washington - to crack down on illegal gun trafficking.

With the level of gun violence so prevalent here and across the country, local law enforcement needs all the tools it can get to track guns that end up in the hands of criminals. Gun dealers who obey the law aren't at risk. It's that small percentage of dealers who break the law that must be found and put out of business.

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