The missing issue: gun control

Every year, some 31,000 Americans are killed with guns; nearly 340,000 more are victimized in gun-related crimes, with more than 73,000 of those treated in hospital emergency rooms for nonfatal gunshot wounds. The rate of firearms-related homicide in the U.S. is 20 times that of the next 22 richest nations combined, yet measures to reduce the loss of life and the enormous economic and social costs of gun violence have become a virtual non-issue in this year's political campaign season. Neither President Barack Obama nor challenger Mitt Romney appeared willing to risk even talking about renewing a ban on assault rifles with large-capacity magazines — like the one used in the Aurora, Colo., movie theater shooting this year — when the subject was raised by a questioner at the second presidential debate.

Yet there are practical, effective steps federal, state and local authorities can take to keep guns out of the hands of the people who are most likely to misuse them. A new study by researchers at the Johns Hopkins University Bloomberg School of Public Health suggests that even in states, like Maryland, that already have strong gun control laws, gun-related crime and violence could be significantly reduced. The key is broadening the prohibitions on handgun ownership and possession to high-risk groups such as people under age 21, alcoholics and drug abusers, and people convicted of violent crimes that are currently classified as misdemeanors rather than felonies. Combined with stricter federal laws requiring background checks on all gun sales, the researchers argue, lives will be saved and violence reduced if a concerted effort is made to keep more of the most dangerous people from buying or possessing handguns.

It should go without saying that alcoholics and drug addicts shouldn't be allowed access to handguns. Alcohol and other drugs impair their users' judgment and ability to foresee the consequences of their actions, and when that's combined with the lethal effect of a gun, the result can be tragic. Federal law already prohibits firearms possession by anyone who is addicted to illegal drugs, but the law doesn't apply unless a person has been convicted of a drug offense within the previous year. The number of drug addicts legally banned from having firearms could be increased if the period following a drug conviction were expanded.

Similarly, alcoholism is strongly associated with violence. But federal law does not bar alcoholics from buying or possessing firearms, and only 16 states have laws to keep firearms out of the hands of people addicted to alcohol. Enacting legislation that prohibits people convicted of drunken driving, alcohol-related domestic violence, disorderly conduct and other offenses in which excessive drinking played a role not only would reduce the incidence of gun-related violence and crime but also send a powerful message to abusers that their high-risk behavior threatens their right to own or possess firearms.

Among the most sweeping measures recommended by the study is a ban on handgun ownership or possession by youths under 21. Federal law prohibits youths under 18 from having handguns, but only a handful of states bar 18-to-20-year-olds from owning handguns, even though other studies have shown that homicide rates peak among offenders in their late teens and early 20s. Society already has recognized that youths between those ages are at greater risk of alcohol-related accidents and violence by establishing 21 as the minimum legal drinking age in all 50 states. It should establish similarly uniform laws banning handgun possession for those under 21 (such youths could still use and possess rifles and shotguns).

Finally, there must be stronger regulation and oversight of gun sales in order to reduce the number of guns being diverted to criminal use. The most glaring loophole in current federal law involves gun sales between private individuals, which are not subject to the same reporting and background check requirements of federally licensed firearms dealers. It's much easier for guns to find their way into the hands of criminals if there is no record of when and where they were purchased. Tightening oversight of gun sales by making background checks a universal requirement for private sellers as well as licensed gun dealers would make it harder for criminals to purchase guns. So would requiring firearms buyers to be licensed by federal or state authorities in order to purchase gun. The latter, in particular, would make it much harder for criminals to obtain firearms through "straw purchasers," people with clean records who are paid to buy guns legally and then turn them over to criminal individuals and organizations.

Politicians too often avoid talking about such measures because they fear, often with good cause, that being seen as a supporter of any form of gun control, however reasonable or modest, will open them to attacks on Election Day from the nation's powerful gun lobby. It's all too easy for groups like the National Rifle Association to persuade gun owners that politicians who support gun control are not only anti-gun but anti-gun-owner as well. Yet, the Hopkins researchers found a surprising consensus even among gun owners that firearms should be kept out of the hands of dangerous people. One survey conducted by a Republican pollster, for example, indicated that 87 percent of gun owners and 74 percent of NRA members favored universal background checks.

Restricting access to firearms by alcohol and drug abusers, youths under 21 and those convicted of violent misdemeanors represents a common-sense approach to reducing gun violence and crime that a majority of Americans agree is necessary. The only think lacking is political will.

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