WESTBROOK — In their Dec. 2 editorial (“Existing laws won’t stem felons’ gun purchases“), the editors of this newspaper lamented the defeat of Question 3, the ballot initiative that sought to regulate private-party gun sales. As one who deplores the level of gun violence in our society, I voted in favor, and I share their disappointment.

However, the suggestion by the opposition that we focus instead on better enforcement of existing laws is a good one. Although it may seem unnatural to gun control advocates, they should take their cue from this, examine more critically how criminals acquire their guns and ask whether existing laws regulating the distribution of firearms are being adequately enforced.

Virtually every gun used in a crime was once for sale in the shop of a licensed dealer. What are the paths by which they are distributed from there to the criminal class?

Prior to the Brady Act of 1993, which mandates background checks, anyone, with or without a criminal record, could simply buy from a federally licensed dealer. That path has now been blocked. Another is private sales, blocked in the few states that regulate them.

There is good evidence that these measures make a small (but non-negligible) dent in the problem. It is now harder and requires more determination for a criminal to obtain the weapon he desires. Still, there are too many guns too easily available to the wrong people.

Loss or theft from lawful gun owners, including dealers, is another path. Perhaps a public information campaign reminding gun owners to secure their weapons in a safe when not in use would help. It might also reduce the number of suicides, which account for two-thirds of U.S. gun deaths.

But the most significant paths are (1) so-called “straw purchases,” in which one who would fail a background check simply finds a willing surrogate purchaser, and (2) bulk purchases, usually from multiple dealers, by gun traffickers. Often straw purchases, which are illegal, are abetted by negligent or corrupt dealers.

The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, the federal agency responsible for combating illegal distribution of firearms, carries out traces, through the serial numbers, of guns used in crimes back to the dealers who first sold them. They reported that in 1998, more than 85 percent of licensed dealers in the U.S. had no crime guns traced to them at all, while only 1 percent of them accounted for 57 percent of the crime traces.

There could hardly be a clearer indication that most dealers are exceptionally good but that a few are exceptionally bad. Society places a great responsibility for its safety on our arms dealers by licensing them to sell, but some of them are letting us down.

Are we giving the ATF and other law enforcement agencies all of the tools, financial support and clout they need to keep illegal guns off our streets? Probably not. In the past, Congress has actually passed laws restricting the activities of the ATF and denying them tools that would help them do their job effectively.

Do gun dealers need to be more closely audited and have their books and inventory examined more frequently? Probably so. Inspections and audits do burden lawful dealers just to catch the few “bad apples,” but they are a responsibility that should come with a license to sell lethal instruments.

The measures I have outlined rarely come up in discussions of gun control, but they should. They merit a full debate, eventually in Congress, to decide whether they would make good policy. Tighter enforcement of existing laws controlling the distribution of guns, including stiffer penalties for violating them, would tackle a bigger part of the problem than would the controversial expansion of background checks, as important as it may be.

These are steps that those on both sides of the debate should be able to support, for they would impinge not at all on the rights or convenience of the law-abiding – only on the activities of the criminal class.

Gun manufacturers, who seem to care only about making every last sale and distributing their products to every last corner of society, regardless of the consequences to public safety, thereby giving gun owners a bad name, might object. But it is time for them to think about their responsibilities. What we now need is a Congress with the ability to recognize that there is a problem and with the motivation (which must come from us, the voters) to do something about it.


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