New Gun Controls Are Off Target

Commentary by Pete du Pont

According to the Wall Street Journal, an indirect consequence of the horrible massacre at Littleton and other school shootings is that the gun market is booming. In addition, whenever the Congress wants to "do something" to stop these extremely rare events, the threat of new gun controls boosts gun sales.

The fact that the federal government is powerless to prevent school shootings hardly matters. After all, it's about good intentions, feeling good, and getting reelected, isn't it? Last month the U.S. Senate passed the Juvenile Accountability Act, which proposes to spend another $1 billion annually. The House will consider similar legislation this month.

Some of the most prominent features of the legislation have to do with guns. Depriving children and criminals of access to firearms is supposed to be a key goal. Yet an examination of the law that passed the Senate makes it clear that nothing voted on would have prevented the massacre in Colorado, or any other school shooting, or would be likely to do so in the future. Take gun locks, which would be mandatory for new sales. Most handguns are already sold with trigger or barrel locks. The primary purpose, according to experts: to prevent use only by children under age 7. Locks would not have thwarted Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold at Columbine High School. They would have known how to remove any locks - and besides, they did most of their killing with shotguns, which would not be covered.

Gun shows are another target, presumably because Harris and Klebold used a girl friend to buy guns at a gun show. However, such a "straw purchase" is already a federal felony under the Gun Control Act of 1968. A mid-1980s survey of convicted felons in 12 state prisons found fewer than 1% obtained guns at gun shows. A 1997 Justice Department study found only 2% of crime guns obtained from gun shows, including illegal purchases.

None of that fazed New Jersey Sen. Frank Lautenberg, whose amendment to the Juvenile Accountability bill imposes new controls on gun show promoters and anyone involved in a show-related deal. The amendment turns private swaps among law-abiding citizens that involve no criminal harm and no criminal intent - the usual standards for criminality - into federal crimes.

Most vendors at gun shows are already federally licensed dealers who must perform the same national instant background check and obey the same federal, state and local rules as they do when they sell in their stores. The background check requirement was never intended to apply to private individuals who display and sell a gun, whether such private swaps occur at a gun show or elsewhere. Nor are gun shows a "loophole" for illegal gun sales. The same laws that apply to all gun transactions also apply at gun shows.

So what's the point? One suspects that Lautenberg and his allies hope that this will be another step toward national registration of guns. For once, President Clinton told the truth when he said he favors national registration of guns but that he does not think Congress would go that far now.

Under current federal law, somebody under 21 cannot buy a handgun but can possess one. The Clinton administration wants to ban possession, too. The question is why. A 20-year-old, say, may well have a legitimate use for a handgun. The ban couldn't be aimed at gang members, since it's already illegal for them to carry guns.

While they were about it, the Senate included a requirement for background checks for people who buy bomb-making materials. What's a bomb-making material? The Oklahoma City bomb that killed 168 people used fertilizer. Harris and Klebold used propane tanks to make their bombs. Neither of those would be covered by the Senate bill. What this proposed regulation on explosive materials illustrates is that there is no logical stopping point to prevention.

We - and the policy makers - might as well acknowledge that sometimes problems don't have easy answers. Pretending that not very helpful public relations gestures will solve substantive problems does us all a disservice. Congress might be better spending its time looking for an honest understanding of the complex issue of violence.



The National Center for Policy Analysis is a public policy research institute founded in 1983 and internationally known for its studies on public policy issues. The NCPA is headquartered in Dallas, Texas, with an office in Washington, D.C.

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