December 24, 2012

Gun safety advocates ready for action

The Connecticut tragedy brings to light proposals to reduce gun deaths that are years in the making.

Melanie Mason / McClatchy Newspapers

WASHINGTON — Just one day after President Obama tapped Vice President Joe Biden to lead an initiative on gun violence, Jon Adler was at its first meeting, with Cabinet secretaries and organizations representing law enforcement.

Not much lead time, but no matter: Adler, national president of the Federal Law Enforcement Officers Association, had a list of policy changes -- from legislative to regulatory to "tactical" coordination -- at the ready, in detail. He cited, chapter and verse, the law that makes it a misdemeanor to knowingly possess a firearm in a school zone. He wanted that upgraded to a felony.

There are plenty of policy ideas to reduce gun violence. Law enforcement groups, gun-safety advocates and other organizations weighing in on the firearms debate have churned out policy prescriptions for years. Most of the time, the recommendations have simply gathered dust. Now, in light of the Connecticut school shooting, advocates hope some of their proposals may become law.

New York City Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg released a statement with his policy wish list less than an hour after Obama announced the Biden-led talks. In addition to shoring up the criminal background check system and introducing laws to ban assault weapons and large-capacity magazines, Bloomberg detailed immediate actions the president could take. Among them: ordering all federal agencies to send records to the national gun background check database.

Advocates say meaningful steps must be focused on more than just preventing mass killings like the one at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., where a semiautomatic rifle was used in an attack that killed 20 children and six adults. That sort of mass shooting can galvanize public attention, but it's rare. Instead, policy ideas should confront the country's broader trend of gun fatalities, advocates say.

"We are in mourning for these children, and the conversation has to start with what would have prevented their deaths and those of the other victims of the rare but too-frequent spree shootings," said Susan Ginsburg, who oversaw firearms policy at the Treasury Department during the Clinton years. But, she added, the Obama administration should also aim to decrease gun violence in urban areas, as well as armed crime in general.

"At its most basic, we have to find ways to keep our citizens from being killed, shot, terrorized and coerced," Ginsburg said.

The president, in an online video Friday, urged supporters of gun control measures to prod Congress into action on laws that would ban the sale of military-style assault weapons and high-capacity ammunition magazines. He also said he would close loopholes in the system of background checks that can allow criminals to get guns.

Of the measures Obama already has endorsed, a ban on what critics call assault weapons may be the most controversial. Part of the challenge in revisiting an assault weapons ban is defining what exactly an assault weapon is.

A 1994 ban, which expired in 2004, prohibited the new manufacture and sale of 19 specific gun models and close copies of those models. It also specified components -- such as a detachable magazine or flash suppressor -- that could qualify a firearm as an assault weapon. Firearms with two or more components were banned.

The list of specific components made it relatively easy for gun manufacturers to avoid the ban. Ginsburg said if Congress is to revisit the assault weapons ban, as proposed by Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., it must also regulate military-caliber weapons and large-capacity magazines already in circulation, something the 1994 ban did not do.

Many other proposals for tighter gun laws have strong public support, polls indicate. Margie Omero, a Washington pollster who has done research for Mayors Against Illegal Guns, said that requiring a background check for every gun purchase, for example, was backed by nearly 90 percent of those polled, including a majority of NRA members.

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