Who needs 12?

September 30, 2007

A gun a month. That's the legal limit for handgun purchases in Maryland: a dozen a year. And yet, it still sounds like too many. Having the freedom to buy as many rifles as you want or as many as 12 handguns a year isn't about freedom of choice. It's about the freedom of a few at the potential expense of far too many.

Maryland is one of only three states that restrict handgun ownership. But there is no limit on the rifles or so-called long guns that a person can own here, nor is there a requirement to report a stolen weapon to police. And 12 states require greater scrutiny of potential gun owners than Maryland under laws that demand fingerprints, proof of residency, a written test and an extensive criminal background check.

Baltimore is precluded from further limiting gun purchases because Maryland, like 41 other states, pre-empts municipalities from enacting meaningful gun laws.

But more can be done at the state level here to keep weapons from falling into the wrong hands, reduce gun trafficking and monitor gun dealers. Among promising proposals elsewhere is legislation before California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger that would require all new models of semi-automatic handguns to carry a microscopic stamp that identifies manufacturer, model and serial number. The markings would enable police to identify a murder weapon in a drive-by shooting, for example, when the only evidence is shell casings.

A proposal to require a gun owner to report the theft of a weapon, which is favored by acting Baltimore Police Commissioner Fredrick H. Bealefeld III, shouldn't be controversial. Police too often trace a gun to an owner who then claims the weapon was missing or stolen. That leaves them with few leads to pursue. Requiring the reporting of a stolen weapon is the law in six states now.

If state legislators balked at such a law, Baltimore would have to try to pass its own, persuade its neighbors to do the same and prepare for a legal challenge gun advocates would likely launch.

Dealers in Maryland should undergo greater scrutiny because most guns used in crimes here are purchased in the state. But inspections of dealers are the purview of federal authorities, who visit about 4.5 percent of gun stores nationally a year.

Baltimore State's Attorney Patricia C. Jessamy favors expanding the state's mandatory five-year sentence and increasing the penalties for violent offenders and drug felons found with guns, a reasonable way to give prosecutors more flexibility in handling these cases.

Gun rights advocates have long objected to Maryland's limits on handguns. But the criminal gun traffic in the state and the prevalence of guns in murders are on the rise. If those two facts don't underscore the need for tougher guns laws, common sense should: A gun a month - what for?

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