Crucial test for Md. gun control

This week may well be the time when lawmakers in Annapolis decide whether the gun control legislation they pass in the wake of the Newton, Conn., school shooting actually does some good to reduce the rates of violence in Maryland or just sounds good at election time. Gov. Martin O'Malley's proposal made it through the Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee last week with its key provisions largely intact. But that progress is at serious risk when the bill hits the Senate floor, likely tomorrow or Wednesday.

The chief obstacle may be Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller, who has said that he objects to what may be the most crucial element of the bill: the requirement that handgun purchasers provide their fingerprints to the state police.

Certainly the other elements of Mr. O'Malley's legislation are important. Assault weapons and large ammunition magazines have factored into several recent mass shooting incidents, and there is no sporting, self-defense or hunting rationale for allowing them. Tighter restrictions on gun sales to those with a history of mental illness, and better information sharing to make sure mental health issues show up in background checks, might have stopped some mass shooters, and they would in any case help reduce the number of suicides.

If there is a chance that such measures can prevent a repeat of Newtown in Maryland, they are worth enacting. But the fact is, mass shootings are not the biggest threat we face. That is the almost daily gun violence on the streets of Baltimore, most of it related to the drug trade. Assault weapons, large magazines and involuntary commitments to mental health facilities don't much factor into the equation.

What does make a difference is the ease with which criminals can get handguns. Some of the guns that show up at crime scenes were stolen, and some come from out of state, but most commonly they come from Maryland dealers, and they are frequently purchased by straw buyers. Studies conducted by Daniel Webster, the head of the Johns Hopkins Center for Gun Policy Research, have shown a strong association between laws like the one Governor O'Malley proposed and reduced rates of straw purchases.

The most persuasive part of Mr. Webster's testimony before the Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee was his discussion of what happened in Missouri after that state repealed its permit-to-purchase system and fingerprinting requirements in 2007. After the repeal went into effect, the average time between the sale of guns and their appearance in Missouri crime scenes dropped, a strong indication of increased straw purchases. In the years before repeal, about 15 percent of guns recovered after crimes in Missouri had been purchased in the state within the prior two years. By 2011, that figure had climbed to more than 35 percent. Before repeal, about 55 percent of Missouri crime guns had first been purchased in that state. By 2011, it was more than 70 percent.

What's more, there is reason to believe the repeal may have led to an increase in violent crime. Mr. Webster said he and his colleagues have begun to study that question, and the preliminary evidence shows a 25 percent increase in the per capita homicide rate in the years since the permit to purchase system was repealed, and that came at a time when homicides were declining nationally and elsewhere in the Midwest.

"I'd go to Virginia [to buy a gun] before I'd give my fingerprints to any government agency," Senator Miller said last week, and that's precisely the point. Criminals will have a much harder time convincing their mothers or girlfriends to buy guns for them if it involves giving their fingerprints to the state police. And while it's true that criminals could send their straw purchasers to other states with weaker laws, like Virginia, doing so is a substantial inconvenience. There is no law we could pass that would make it impossible for bad guys to get guns, but we can certainly make it a lot harder.

If Senator Miller's concern is that law-abiding Marylanders should not have to give the government their fingerprints, he's got a lot of legislating to do. State and local laws require tens of thousands of people to provide their fingerprints as a condition to get a license to do everything from teach school to ride racehorses. We require fingerprints from police officers, liquor store owners, lottery retailers, driving instructors, nurses, casino workers, locksmiths, mortgage originators and more. Calvert County even makes palm readers hand over their fingerprints. If we believe it protects the public to get fingerprints from all those people, why not handgun purchasers?

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