A voice of reason on guns

Baltimore County Police Chief James W. Johnson added a much-needed voice of reason to the national debate over gun control last week when he appeared before Congress to testify in favor of universal background checks for gun purchases and a ban on assault rifles and large capacity ammunition magazines. It was only common sense, he told lawmakers on the Senate Judiciary Committee, to extend the reporting requirements for federally licensed firearms dealers to the private individuals who account for 40 percent of gun sales in this country. To do otherwise, he noted, would be like "allowing 40 percent of airline passengers to board a plane without going through airport security."

Mind you, Chief Johnson is hardly soft on crime, and he doesn't represent a bleeding-heart liberal county. He spoke on behalf of a national coalition of law-enforcement professionals who know better than anyone the deadly price the proliferation of guns in our society exacts on his organization's members and everyone else. And he was absolutely clear that background checks work: Had the requirement been in place, he suggested, both the 2007 Virginia Tech massacre and the shooting of seven women last year in Brookfield, Wis., might have been prevented. In both cases the shooters were able to buy firearms they otherwise would have been prohibited from owning due to prior histories of mental instability or domestic violence.

Mr. Johnson was equally emphatic in urging the committee to reinstate the federal ban on assault weapons with large-capacity magazines, which he described as firearms designed for troops on the battlefield that "are not used in hunting, do not belong in our homes and wreak havoc in our communities." Since Congress allowed the ban on assault rifles to lapse in 2004, Mr. Johnson said, he and his colleagues have seen an "explosion" in the percentage of crimes committed with such weapons. "It is common to find many shell casings at crime scenes these days, as victims are being riddled with multiple gunshots," he testified.

As if to underscore those concerns, earlier in the day the husband of former Arizona congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords, who was gravely injured in a 2011 mass shooting and who opened the hearing with a moving plea to toughen the nation's gun laws, interrupted the proceedings to announce news of another mass shooting in an office building in Phoenix. That attack, apparently carried out by a disgruntled client of a company that leased space in the building, killed one man at the scene and left another man and a woman seriously injured. (The second man later died of his wounds.)

That tragedy occurred as the nation was still reeling from reports of two more high-profile shootings the day before, one of which claimed the life of a 15-year-old Chicago girl who had performed at President Obama's inauguration last month, the other involving a 66-year-old school bus driver in Alabama who was shot multiple times by a deranged man who boarded his bus. The girl, Hadiya Pendleton, an honor student and member of her school band, was struck when a gunman opened fire on the group she was with as they walked home from school. The bus driver, Charles Albert Poland Jr., was slain as he tried to prevent the alleged shooter, Jimmy Lee Dykes, from kidnapping two children on the bus.

When respected voices like Chief Johnson speak out on the need to address the rising epidemic of gun violence, Congress ought to listen. State-level laws can help — indeed, legislators in Annapolis are considering a package of bills that could do a great deal to reduce gun violence in Maryland — but this is a national problem that requires federal legislation. Thirty percent of the guns recovered at crime scenes in 2009, for example, had crossed state lines, and interstate firearms trafficking can only be regulated at the federal level.

The modest restrictions proposed by Chief Johnson and his colleagues won't end gun violence altogether, but neither do they threaten the Second Amendment rights of law-abiding gun owners who use firearms responsibly for hunting or to protect their families. Society inevitably pays dearly, however, when guns fall into the wrong hands, and unfortunately that seems to be happening more frequently than ever these days. Strengthening the protections against senseless gun violence shouldn't be a partisan issue but rather something thoughtful men and women of both parties can see the need for and act on accordingly. Congress hasn't been famous for doing much of that lately, but enacting common sense gun legislation represents an opportunity it shouldn't pass up.

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