What Maryland can do to reduce gun violence

When President Barack Obama talked about the violence in Newtown, Conn., in his weekly radio address on Saturday, he urged the nation to act not only to stop mass killings like that one but also those that occur on "countless street corners in places like Chicago and Philadelphia." He might well have included Baltimore in that list, as our homicide numbers, though still low by the standards of recent history, have crept back above the macabre threshold of 200 again this year. Mr. Obama has pledged meaningful national action to stop the scourge of gun violence, and he has ordered Vice President Joe Biden to convene a task force and make recommendations for action within weeks.

Federal action to restrict access to the kinds of weapons used by the Connecticut mass shooter and others is essential, as would be an effort to tighten the background check system to help keep guns out of the wrong hands. But Maryland lawmakers should not stand by and wait. There are meaningful restrictions that can be enacted on the state level that would not only help prevent a mass killing like the one in Newtown but could also give police and prosecutors more tools to prevent the near-daily killings that have plagued Baltimore for years.

Legislators in both the House and Senate have said they plan to introduce a state-level assault weapons ban and to enact stricter limits on the size of ammunition magazines that are allowed here. (Maryland limits magazines to 20 rounds; the Connecticut shooter used 30-round magazines, and the shooter in this summer's movie theater massacre in Colorado had a 100-round drum magazine, though it jammed.)

No matter what Congress does, such a law would be helpful because of the way local, state and federal authorities in Maryland cooperate to, in the memorable phrase of former Baltimore Police Commissioner Frederick H. Bealefeld III, get "bad guys with guns" off the street. Much of that strategy has centered on tough prosecutions for gun crimes, which typically come with stiff mandatory minimum sentences without parole. Enacting a state-level assault weapons ban would provide prosecutors with a new tool in that fight, no matter what Congress does.

The truth, though, is that handguns are a much bigger public safety problem in Baltimore than assault weapons, and some of the legislation under consideration in Annapolis would more directly address them.

One is a bill sponsored in the past by Sen. Brian Frosh that would authorize the state police to audit the inventory of gun dealers in the same way the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives does. Those audits help prevent illegal, off-the-books sales, but the ATF's extremely limited manpower means that it can take years before a bad dealer is discovered and shut down. Senator Frosh, a Montgomery County Democrat, has said he will introduce it again. Other legislation and administrative action under consideration would bolster the state's ability to determine whether prospective gun purchasers should be disqualified because of a criminal record or history of mental illness.

But we urge the legislature to go further and enact a licensing system for gun purchasers. Although interstate gun trafficking is a problem, the most common way criminals in Baltimore get guns is through straw purchases. But if the purchaser is required to go first to a law enforcement agency to be fingerprinted, he or she is much less likely to agree to the deal.

A 2001 study led by Daniel Webster of the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health found that in cities where state laws require licensing for gun purchasers and registration of firearms, a vastly smaller percentage of the guns used in crimes come from that state. In Baltimore, for example, where the law requires registration but not licensure, 73 percent of guns used in crimes had come from Maryland. But in New York City and Jersey City, where registration and licensure are required, only 14 percent and 13 percent of the guns used in crimes had come from their respective states.

Licensure doesn't eliminate handgun violence, but it makes it more difficult and expensive for criminals to get guns. If Maryland is serious about reducing the threat of gun violence, it is the most important step lawmakers could take.

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