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The false security of gun-control measures

Now that the way has been cleared for the U.S. Senate to vote on a bipartisan bill to toughen federal gun controls, Americans should remember that the effectiveness of government regulations has limits. Ultimately, new laws will give Americans a false sense of security and further delay efforts to address cultural dysfunctions that give rise to so much violence.

The Senate bill would require near-universal background checks, comprehensive federal regulations for gun transactions and tighter school security.

With tens of millions of guns in circulation, background checks for buyers and federal surveillance of nearly every sale — by a dealer or private individual — won't keep guns out of the hands of deranged individuals. Too often, the children and other acquaintances of perfectly sane gun owners can get their hands on weapons and instigate hideous events.

Locks don't stop thieves; they just slow them down. Individuals bent on getting their hands on a gun will do so, unless the federal government can find a constitutional way to make most guns illegal — and that is not going to happen. The Senate bill and much of the legislation proposed or recently passed in more progressive states like Maryland and New York can't change that.

A hard reality advocates of strict gun controls won't address is that semiautomatic rifles of the type used in Newtown, Conn., and other tragedies are necessary for the protection of law-abiding adults in rural areas and many other locations. A handgun is not much use when one is confronted by multiple armed intruders at 2 a.m., and a police response — even triggered by a home security system — is 20 minutes to an hour away. Only a weapon that can fire multiple rounds quickly will suffice.

Absolutely limiting the size of ammunition magazines would help, but if a deranged person can steal a semiautomatic weapon, he can surely manage to get his hands on one of the many large magazines that will remain in circulation or be manufactured illegally; they are just not that difficult to make.

Another problem with many current anti-gun efforts, including those here in Maryland, is that labeling folks receiving mental health care as a danger to society, for the purposes of gun transactions, tramples all kinds of constitutional privacy protections. Even if authorities could get mental health professionals to fully cooperate, which is doubtful, the overzealous application of "danger to public safety" designations would pin scarlet letters on many otherwise harmless citizens.

With employers using sophisticated background checks to screen potential new hires, innocent people seeking help with emotional problems — ranging from mothers fearful of fathers snatching children in custody disputes to disaffected employees expressing angst about their boss — could be designated a danger and locked out of the job market.

Similarly, regulating the violence promoted by video games and some television programs runs smack into free speech protections.

Obsession with electronic diversions by children and young adults is symptomatic of more basic problems. Too many young people are simply riveted to keyboards and screens because we build schools and communities that impose obstacles to the kind of healthy physical recreation that occupied youths in generations past; after school baseball has been replaced by after school video violence, and parents in two-career families are too absorbed and stressed to adequately supervise and steer children into healthier activities.

Making schools safer sounds great, but unless we want to arm our teachers with assault automatic weapons or turn our schools into walled fortresses, akin to prisons, schools will remain porous, and the main effect of new security measures will be to raise education costs, rather than accomplishing greater protection against threatening intruders.

President Barack Obama and many in Congress will likely herald the passage of a new federal gun law as a great advance. Americans, who too often confuse bustle with thought and movement with progress, will be comforted — until the next tragedy takes its toll.

Peter Morici, an economist and professor at the University of Maryland's Robert H. Smith School of Business, is a widely published columnist. His email is pmorici@rhsmith.umd.edu. Twitter: @pmorici1.

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