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The way forward on gun safety

Senator Pat Toomey (R-PA) (R) and Senator Joe Manchin (D-W.VA) (L) hold a news conference on firearms background checks on Capitol Hill in Washington April 10, 2013.


Washington is still capable of surprise. After two conservative, gun-owning senators from states with a strong gun culture couldn’t move modest gun-safety legislation through the Senate, something unusual happened: Their proposal didn’t die.

The defeat earlier this month of a sensible, incremental and overwhelmingly popular bill to expand background checks on gun purchases was a clear victory for the gun lobby. Yet instead of running for political cover, Sen. Joe Manchin of West Virginia and Sen. Pat Toomey of Pennsylvania are back, seeking to revive bipartisan negotiations to enhance gun safety. The politics of guns is changing.

The National Rifle Association is a lobbying and marketing organization with more than $200 million in annual revenue. Common sense lacks a similarly well-endowed lobby. However, by strengthening law enforcement, research and political resources, supporters of gun safety can begin to alter what has long been a losing dynamic. Eventually, even Congress will come around.

The Obama administration should start by following the advice of NRA leader Wayne LaPierre, who continually exhorts the federal government to “enforce the law.” LaPierre has a point, even if his energies are spent subverting the very laws he claims to want enforced.

In 2012, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives conducted more than 13,000 compliance checks at the nation’s 69,000 federally licensed gun dealers and found about half of them were “in full compliance with the law.” That means half were not.

Are the violations minor? The ATF says that “commonly disclosed” compliance failures include not verifying a buyer’s eligibility, not accounting for gun stock, not properly recording receipts or documenting gun transfers, and not reporting multiple sales. In other words, not following the basic tenets of U.S. firearms law.

To put that in perspective, between 2004 and 2011, there were 174,679 documented thefts and losses from gun dealer inventories. Yet the ATF seeks to revoke dealer licenses in only 0.5 percent of inspections. A Department of Justice inspector general report released last week said the majority of licensed dealers hadn’t been inspected at all between 2007 and 2012.

The gun lobby has long worked to defund the ATF and thwart its operations. But the Obama administration has recently taken executive actions to bolster policing — requiring, for example, that all federal law enforcement agencies submit confiscated guns to the ATF for tracing. It is also working to improve the quality of information flowing into the National Instant Criminal Background Check System.

In addition, the White House has directed the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to resume studying the causes and effects of gun violence. Funding for this research had been halted by members of Congress under the gun lobby’s influence.

The gun lobby fears research and has gone to great lengths to squelch it, for the same reason the tobacco lobby once did: It undermines their cause. Researchers including Garen Wintemute of the University of California at Davis and Mayors Against Illegal Guns have revealed how easy it is for criminals to obtain guns at unregulated gun shows.

Two weeks ago, to protect residents of the Boston area from an armed suspect, authorities brought the city to a standstill — a compelling expression of American values. Supporters of gun safety must work to instill the gun debate with a similar reverence for humanity.

Bloomberg News (April 29)

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