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Keeping guns out of the wrong hands

A common refrain of those who object to new gun control laws is that authorities could do much to keep firearms out of the wrong hands and reduce violence by simply enforcing the laws that are already on the books. In the case of gun trafficking, this line of reasoning is a bit like asking why authorities don't tackle the problem of traffic safety by busting jaywalkers. Under current law, the burden of proof is too high and the penalties are too low to make it worth prosecutors' time, and so few resources are put into going after those who buy guns on behalf of people who cannot legally do so on their own.

Rep. Elijah Cummings and a group of representatives from both parties are seeking to change that. In a rare bit of bipartisan agreement, a handful of members of the House of Representatives from both sides of the aisle are sponsoring a bill to create a federal statute outlawing gun trafficking — astonishingly, there isn't one already — and stiffening penalties for straw purchases of guns to as much as 20 years in prison. The bill is similar to an effort in the Senate that has also garnered bipartisan support, and the issue was highlighted recently by President Barack Obama in a speech about gun control in Minnesota. Republican House leaders have been noncommittal about whether they will bring the bill to the floor, but it has the strong support of national law enforcement groups.

The bill would make it illegal for an individual to "receive, or to transfer, or to otherwise dispose of" two or more firearms that have been "shipped or transported in interstate or foreign commerce" to someone who is ineligible to buy a gun under existing statutes or someone who intends to use the weapon in a crime. The bill establishes even stiffer penalties for the organizer of such a scheme.

Under current law, the only way federal authorities can go after someone for a straw purchase is to prosecute them for semi-related offenses, like lying on a Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives form. Such prosecutions are exceedingly rare because the crime, in most cases, amounts to a misdemeanor.

Mr. Cummings, a Maryland Democrat, and his co-sponsors have pitched the bill as a way to crack down on the large-scale gun trafficking that helps arm drug cartels in Mexico and elsewhere, but it could also have a significant impact on the kind of gun violence common in cities like Baltimore. Street criminals get guns in a variety of ways, including through gun shows and private sales in other states that do not regulate such transactions. But straw purchases are the easiest and most attractive way for those with criminal convictions to get guns — no need to go out of state or to take whatever is available on the black market.

However, the bill could be strengthened. Maryland already has a law against straw purchases, but it is rarely used for reasons that should inform the federal effort. It has proved difficult for prosecutors to prove that a gun was purchased with the intent to transfer it to someone who is not eligible to own a gun, and prosecutors have had difficulty establishing that a weapon has been "transferred," in the legal sense, to such a person. Accused straw purchasers have successfully argued that they were merely loaning the guns to someone else. The bill's authors should consider the experience of Maryland prosecutors and seek amendments to make their proposed statute more useful.

That said, the Cummings proposal would work well in concert with President Obama's proposal to extend background checks to private sales and Gov. Martin O'Malley's effort to create a state-level licensing system for handgun purchasers. Despite the objections of the National Rifle Association, there appears some bipartisan support for closing the so-called "gun show loophole," which allows as many as 40 percent of gun sales to occur outside of the background check system. Even House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, a leader in his party's conservative wing, has expressed a willingness in recent days to beef up background checks, though he has not specifically endorsed the president's proposal.

Mr. O'Malley's legislation, though, appears to be in trouble in the face of skepticism from conservative Democrats, who are pushing to break up the various elements of the governor's bill rather than voting on them as a package. In an odd twist on the politics of guns in Washington, where an effort to ban assault weapons and high-capacity magazines is proving most controversial, some Democrats in Annapolis seem to want to get a chance to vote for an assault weapons ban without having to support licensing. Drawing such a distinction between one part of the bill and another makes little sense in terms of politics or policy. Staunch gun control opponents won't be mollified, and if Maryland lawmakers are concerned with taking steps that will actually reduce gun violence here, licensing — which creates accountability for those whose guns wind up in the wrong hands — is far more significant than banning assault weapons.

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