Straight shooting for better gun laws
By James Alan Fox
Monday, August 14, 2006
Whenever I breathe even a word about guns in this space or other media
outlets, I can expect a rapid-fire barrage of irate e-mails from gun advocates.
I'm surprised they can afford so much free time away from keeping their firearms
collections well polished.
These attacks presume much about my position on gun control, typically making
reference to my "ilk." Well, I've decided to mark my one-year anniversary
writing for the Herald by clearing the air of lingering gun smoke. A few bullet
points may actually surprise those of my counter-ilk:
- Guns are not the root cause of our violent society. In fact, the U.S.
non-gun homicide rate (3.6 non-gun homicides per 100,000 residents) is
double the overall homicide rate in virtually all our kindred nations,
including Great Britain, Canada and Australia. That said, firearms do make
violent attacks far more lethal.
- I have never suggested abolishing the right of gun ownership by
trustworthy citizens. Moreover, the criteria for licensing owners should be
standardized (at least within Massachusetts) so as not to infringe on the
rights of legitimate gun owners.
- I concur with the need to punish violators. But the usual complaint that
we do not prosecute gun crimes is just false. Our prisons are full of
offenders who committed violent crimes with firearms.
As I have noted before, the National Rifle Association has recently grown
more powerful in manipulating congressional action. My complaint is not so much
with the NRA (which is entitled to its position), but with members of Congress
who capitulate to its pressure. Our lawmakers should adopt gun policy based on
sound evidence, not based on fear that a potent lobby will hold a gun to their
The goal is not to deprive law-abiding Americans of the ability to own
firearms, but to disrupt the flow of guns to impulsive, impatient and imprudent
trigger-happy gang-bangers who have helped send the rate of gun violence through
the roof. Some reasonable approaches include: establishing a database of
ballistic fingerprints - the unique striation marks produced by gun barrel - for
all new firearms; full Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms tracing of serial
numbers on all guns recovered from criminal activity; and even gun registration.
- What is so wrong with ballistic fingerprinting Sure, I've heard the
argument that gun barrels can be replaced or modified. As a parallel to
actual fingerprinting, criminals sometimes wear gloves or alter their
fingertips, but that doesn't discourage us from collecting this kind of
- The ATF tracing initiative has consistently shown that less than 1
percent of gun dealers are linked to a majority of firearms recovered from
criminal enterprises. While most of these traces may have involved
legitimate transactions, ATF investigations have uncovered thousands of
federal law violations by these dealers. Unfortunately, recent congressional
legislation significantly limits public and law enforcement access to
gun-tracing information, thereby shielding rogue dealers.
- Aside from some paranoid view of government intrusion, what really is
the danger of firearms registration or of background checks on all gun
sales We register automobiles, and qualify and license drivers; why not do
the same with guns and their owners It makes no sense to prevent law
enforcement from tracking firearms transfers that fuel the illegal market.
We could even install LoJack-style, GPS devices into new guns to curtail
trade in stolen firearms.
It may be naive to believe there is room for compromise in the heated gun
control debate. Perhaps I should just make some room in my in-box to accommodate
another onslaught of angry e-mails.
James Alan Fox is the Lipman Family Professor of Criminal Justice at Northeastern University. Talk back at firstname.lastname@example.org.