Maryland must take action on gun sales

December 30, 2007|By Daniel Webster

Homicides increased in Baltimore and in many other parts of the state during 2007. Appropriately, Baltimore officials have made getting illegal guns off the streets a priority, and the city Police Department's Gun Task Force has been recovering guns from criminals and investigating people suspected of supplying guns to criminals.

But these new efforts to hold gun traffickers accountable for supplying criminals with guns are being hampered by legal loopholes. These loopholes could be fixed easily with little cost to law-abiding gun owners.

Marylanders' opinions about guns may differ, but there is near-unanimity in the desire to keep guns from dangerous people. The best-kept secret about the gun debate is that most gun owners support reasonable regulations to keep guns from criminals.

Virtually all guns that criminals use start out at a federally licensed gun dealer. Unfortunately, Congress has bowed to gun industry interests and greatly weakened federal laws designed to keep gun dealers from selling guns to criminals and traffickers. So Maryland needs to step up.

There is no better example of this than the case of Valley Gun, a gun store that operated just outside the city from 1996 to 2006. During this time, Valley Gun was among the nation's leading sellers of guns later traced to crime. The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives conducted annual compliance inspections of Valley Gun, and each inspection found numerous violations of federal gun laws, over 900 in total.

Valley could not account for hundreds of guns and finally had its federal license to sell firearms revoked - nine years after the violations were initially found.

While Valley Gun was racking up federal violations and its guns were regularly being recovered from crime scenes, the Maryland State Police renewed its state license to sell handguns each year. But you can't blame the state police - Maryland laws make it extremely difficult to sanction or shut down gun dealers.

Rogue gun dealers in Maryland have had it too easy for far too long. State police need the authority to fine gun dealers and to revoke licenses for repeated violations.

In 1996, state lawmakers made a big step forward by requiring background checks of anyone wanting to buy a handgun, whether the sale was by a licensed dealer or a private seller. This is a prerequisite of any system for keeping guns from dangerous people. But the impact of this law has been greatly diminished by weak penalties and loopholes that make it difficult to hold law violators accountable.

State lawmakers must make it easier to convict key accomplices to gun violence - those supplying criminals with guns. Although very few guns used in crimes had been reported as stolen to police, theft is the most common excuse given when someone's gun is recovered from a criminal. That's why a law requiring gun owners to report gun thefts is necessary for any credible system of accountability.

Transferring a gun to a prohibited criminal - particularly if the gun is used in a crime - should be a felony that brings prison time. Now it is a misdemeanor that prosecutors usually ignore because the few violators that do get convicted rarely do time.

Two common ways in which criminals get their guns - fake IDs and straw purchases - also must be addressed. Handgun purchasers should be required to apply for permits through a local law enforcement agency rather than have their purchase application vetted by someone who will profit from the sale. Anyone thinking of buying a gun for a criminal would think twice if they first had to go to a law enforcement agency to be photographed and fingerprinted for their license to purchase firearms. New Jersey has such a system and does a far better job than Maryland at keeping guns from criminals.

Better regulating gun dealers, requiring gun thefts to be reported, increasing penalties for gun sales to criminals and having law enforcement more directly scrutinize applications to purchase handguns, together, could save the lives of many Marylanders.

Gun rights extremists will squawk that any regulation of guns infringes upon their constitutional rights. But the reality is that most gun owners, like those who don't own guns, favor reasonable regulations such as these because everyone wants to keep criminals from getting guns.

Daniel Webster is co-director of the Center for Gun Policy and Research at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health. His e-mail is dwebster@jhsph.edu.

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