Awash in illicit guns

Getting illegal guns off the streets has been a priority for Baltimore City police in recent years, and the success of that effort is reflected in significantly lower homicide rates. But despite Maryland's enforcement of tough gun control laws, keeping guns out of the hands of criminals is an uphill battle so long as neighboring states allow virtually anyone who has the money to buy a gun, with no questions asked.

As The Sun's Justin Fenton reported this week, a recent review of federal crime data by the group Mayors Against Illegal Guns, a coalition of 600 mayors from around the country, found that nearly half the guns used at crime scenes came from just 10 states. Not surprisingly, all of them had much weaker gun control laws than Maryland.

The result is that criminals here have little difficulty getting their hands on firearms, especially at gun shows in nearby Virginia, West Virginia and Pennsylvania, where customers can avoid criminal background checks and where there's no limit on how many weapons a person can buy. The trade in such guns has helped make Maryland the nation's ninth-highest importer of firearms used in the commission of crimes; last year, 42 percent of the guns traced to Maryland crime scenes came from out of state.

But there's not much Maryland legislators can do about lax gun laws in other states. It's impossible to write effective laws against illegal firearms on a state-by-state basis, because criminals in states with tougher laws can always get around the restrictions simply by driving a short distance to states where guns are easier to buy. Without sensible federal restrictions that apply across the board, many state gun laws are virtually meaningless.

This being an election year, Congress hasn't expressed much appetite for writing any new gun legislation that might draw down the ire of the National Rifle Association on members running for House and Senate seats. But stanching the flow of illegal guns shouldn't be a partisan issue. Even the NRA agrees that criminals and the mentally ill should not be allowed to purchase guns, and although the advocacy group claims the gun show loophole is a "fable," it makes no sense that any exception to that rule would be permitted.

As it stands, private sellers at gun shows can sell guns without first performing a background check to determine whether potential customers have a criminal record or whether they have been treated for a mental illness. A Maryland inmate just released from prison after serving a sentence for armed robbery could drive a few miles into Virginia to buy another gun with no questions asked. The same thing applies to people coming out of mental hospitals and treatment programs.

Although the gun show loophole — which serves no legitimate interest and needlessly endangers communities and law-abiding citizens — is the most obvious opportunity for the federal government to play a constructive role in reducing criminals' access to guns, there is no reason it should not also be able to reach a consensus on reviving the assault weapon ban and limiting the number of handguns that can be sold at one time, which would help reduce gun trafficking. The only bill presently before Congress would actually weaken rather than strengthen the federal government's ability to monitor illegal gun sales. When Congress returns to Washington, we hope it will summon the courage to begin reducing the flood of illegal weapons into states like Maryland that have tough gun laws on the books but still find themselves at the mercy of neighboring states where lax regulation allows criminals to buy all the weapons they want with impunity.

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