Maryland's gun control paradox

For critics of gun control, Maryland, and particularly Baltimore, are proof of the pointlessness and even dangerousness of seeking to make legal access to firearms more difficult. Maryland has some of the strictest gun control laws in the nation, particularly in Baltimore, yet it also has high rates of gun crime, especially in its largest city. Even those who are inclined to support gun control may ask what the point is of trying to tackle it on a state level. If Maryland is sandwiched between Pennsylvania and Virginia, with their relatively lax laws, does it make any difference if we enact stricter standards here?

The answer is that Baltimore has a long-standing problem with crime, largely stemming from the drug trade, and the availability of firearms exacerbates it and makes it more deadly. The fact that gun control won't instantly eliminate all violence doesn't mean it's not worth pursuing.

The headline-grabbing elements of Gov. Martin O'Malley's package of gun control proposals have been his efforts to ban assault weapons and ammunition magazines that hold more than 10 rounds. Critics call that political opportunism in the wake of the Newtown, Conn., school shooting. It is true that neither measure would likely have a significant impact on the violence we see on our streets every day. As The Sun's Justin George and Justin Fenton reported this weekend, only about 1 percent of the weapons Baltimore police seized last year would qualify as assault weapons, and the overwhelming majority of weapons used in Baltimore crimes are handguns.

But that doesn't mean Mr. O'Malley's proposal is worthless. On the contrary, such weapons have shown up frequently in mass shootings, like in Newtown or Aurora, Colo. Such acts are a rarity, but it is nonetheless reasonable for Maryland to do what it can to make the odds of one happening here slimmer.

Likewise, the governor's proposals for stronger regulations to prevent those who suffer from mental illnesses from getting guns probably wouldn't have much effect on street crimes. But they are still important — perhaps as much for their role in preventing suicides as homicides.

The part of the governor's package that has the most direct bearing on the daily violence that plagues Baltimore and other Maryland communities is his proposal to require registration — including fingerprinting by the state police — for gun purchasers.

It is a problem for Maryland law enforcement officials that surrounding states do not require background checks for private sales of guns or for sales at gun shows. But the majority of guns used in crimes in Maryland do not come from other states. According to statistics from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives and other sources compiled by Messrs. George and Fenton, nearly six in 10 guns recovered by Maryland police last year were traced to in-state purchases.

There is frequently a long gap between a legal purchase and a gun's use in a crime, and the weapon may change hands through a variety of illegal means before it winds up in the hands of a criminal, but it is clear that we have not exhausted our ability to stop intra-state trafficking of guns. Other states with laws like the one Mr. O'Malley is proposing have seen a reduction in straw purchases — that is, people with no criminal records buying guns on behalf of those who could not pass a background check. Such a step would not solve Baltimore's problems outright, but it would help. So would tougher penalties for straw purchasers.

Legislation to give the state police the ability to audit gun dealers in the way the ATF now does is not part of the governor's package of bills, but it is also important. The ATF is understaffed and has been without a director for years, seriously compromising its ability to find dishonest gun dealers, much less to put them out of business.

It would be a mistake to think gun control is either the simple answer to Baltimore's violence or irrelevant to it. We need to tackle the root causes of the problem through better access to drug treatment, improved education and greater economic opportunities, and the city has made strides in all three areas in recent years. But we also need to recognize that a more robust regulatory scheme for firearms and stricter enforcement of gun crimes would help.

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