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EDITORIAL

Newtown's Legacy Must Be Reining In Gun Violence

Lessening the damage done by firearms is complicated

7:01 PM EST, February 22, 2013

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Will the Sandy Hook Promise be kept?

If you watched the Hartford Courant / Frontline special "Raising Adam Lanza / Newtown Divided" on PBS Tuesday night, you know there is a group of people in Newtown, with supporters across the country, intensely dedicated to reducing the kind of gun violence that so tragically visited their community on Dec. 14.

Vice President Joseph Biden visited the state Thursday to promote President Obama's gun-safety agenda. Gov. Dannel P. Malloy, frustrated by the lack of legislative action, proposed a series of measures this past week including universal background checks, strengthening the assault weapons ban and banning large-capacity magazines.

Will these measures succeed in reducing gun violence?

That question was raised by a recently leaked Justice Department memorandum that questioned some of the major gun-control proposals being considered in Washington and many state capitals. Take, for example, the proposed ban on military-style semiautomatic rifles. It is almost instinctive to want to ban such weapons after one was used to murder 20 small children and six educators at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, and we support a ban.

Surprising Findings

But would it significantly reduce gun carnage? The memorandum and an earlier study both report that assault weapons are used in a very small percentage of crimes, 2 to 8 percent. Most guns used in crime are handguns. Assault-style weapons are often used in mass shootings, but mass shootings, while horrific, are relatively rare, taking an average of 35 lives a year out of about 11,000 gun homicides. (There are also nearly 20,000 gun suicides a year.)

Perhaps the most substantive objection to these military-style weapons is that they can accept large-capacity magazines. These magazines are used more often in crimes than assault weapons — they are sometimes used with pistols — and they are also used in mass shootings, reason enough to ban them. But banning them will only be effective if the supply can be sharply curtailed. There are tens of millions of them out there. A buyback? The study says current gun buyback programs are ineffective.

Background checks work: They have stopped more than 2 million sales to felons or other unauthorized buyers. But most crime guns come from straw purchases or thefts, which aren't addressed by background checks.

Part of the problem in addressing gun violence is the lack of good research. That is courtesy of the National Rifle Association and its lackeys in Congress, who in the mid-1990s passed a spectacularly bad piece of legislation that prohibited the use of federal funds for research into gun safety.

Need Better Data

A public health problem of this magnitude — 31,000 deaths, 73,000 injuries a year — should have been under the microscope years ago. The important thing is to get the research going now, as President Obama has ordered, and find ways to stop the bleeding.

In addition to the measures Mr. Malloy has proposed, we should pay more attention to ammunition purchases, either logging them or requiring background checks. There should be continuous checks on whether those who have guns are still eligible for ownership: Checking domestic violence perpetrators, for example, reduces partner violence, the Justice Department memorandum says. We need better ways of tracking guns, something the NRA has also lobbied against. We need better mental health screening.

People have a right to own guns, but they don't have a right to use or store them carelessly. Author and gun owner Dan Baum, writing in The Wall Street Journal, notes that a half-million guns go missing every year, and many end up in the hands of career criminals. Also, the number of accidental childhood deaths has risen since 1999, and the number of teenage suicides, while lower, is still "heartbreakingly high."

He suggests the majority of gun owners, who store their weapons responsibly, make unsafe gun behavior socially unacceptable. We would take it a step further and make it illegal. Thousands of needless injuries and deaths, untold grief and billions in health care costs urge the Sandy Hook Promise on all of us.