Last fall’s sniper attacks in the Washington, D.C., area brought gun control briefly back into the national consciousness. In the wake of those attacks, the Maryland Democratic gubernatorial candidate, Kathleen Kennedy Townsend—who holds an impressive track record on gun safety—made the issue a significant part of her campaign. Had she been successful, another advocate would still be in a position of influence, and such advocates are needed now more than ever. Why? Because we have a Republican-dominated Congress that has never looked favorably on gun control and an administration that shows little taste for stricter measures.
There are, however, some reasons for hope in this direction. One of them has to do with the ban on assault weapons of the very kind used by the sniper. Kristen Rand, an attorney who is legislative director at the Violence Policy Center in Washington, told America that the ban, which expires in 2004, “will force a debate over its renewal, and we have already started organizing with gun control supporters in the House and the Senate to draft legislation that will not only renew the ban, but also significantly strengthen it.” The need to strengthen the present legislation is illustrated, she said, by the fact that the weapon used by the sniper, a Bushmaster XM15, which is a civilian version of a military rifle, the M-16, was specially designed to evade the provisions of the existing ban. In fact, she said, its manufacturer advertises the weapon as a “post-ban carbine.” By making a few alterations, the maker was able to keep this death-dealing weapon, which has no legitimate sporting purpose, on the market. “Its only purpose is to kill,” Ms. Rand said, adding that the assault weapons issue is one the public understands. Polls show that people favor strong controls on firearms of this kind.
Lawsuits have also offered hope of curbing the gun industry’s power. One that was decided last fall was brought by the widow of a Florida public school teacher, Barry Grunow, against the Valor Corporation. Two years ago, a 13-year-old student, Nathaniel Brazill, shot and killed Mr. Grunow in a classroom, using a cheap Saturday night special distributed by Valor—the Raven .25, a weapon associated with many gun-related crimes. The case revolved around whether the distributor was culpably negligent in not including safety features. According to the Brady Center to Prevent Gun Violence, which provided legal assistance in the suit, the verdict against the Valor Corporation was the first against a gun seller for distributing so-called junk guns lacking the kinds of features that might have prevented its use by children or other unauthorized persons.
Another proactive step was taken in California in September, when Governor Gray Davis signed into law several gun-safety measures, including a statute that would remove the gun industry’s immunity to liability suits—an immunity that had been in effect for two decades. Unfortunately, though, a bill now pending in Congress could in effect nullify the California legislation’s impact and stop any future efforts to hold gunmakers and distributors accountable by barring such suits. The bill has received much support in the House, and when taken up in the Senate in the new Congress, support is to be expected there as well. Had the Grunow case not already been won, under the proposed federal legislation a positive outcome would not have been possible.
Also offering hope are initiatives aimed at establishing a national database of ballistic imaging that would allow law enforcement officials to trace crime-scene bullets back to the weapons that fired them. Under this system, gun and rifle manufacturers would be obliged to test-fire their products before selling them. Each firing would produce a set of markings, like fingerprints, that would be entered into the database. Two states have already enacted legislation aimed at establishing statewide databases, and California is considering similar legislation. Groups like the National Rifle Association adamantly oppose such a system, fearing that it might lead to a national registry of gun owners. Although there are some technical hurdles, Ms. Rand and other advocates believe that in time a federal system will be developed and accepted by Congress.
The U.S. bishops have long spoken out against gun-related violence. Over a quarter of a century ago, they issued a statement called Handgun Violence: A Threat to Life. It endorses a series of steps aimed at regulating the use and sale of handguns. These include a ban on Saturday night specials (like the one that killed Barry Grunow) and the mandatory registration of handguns “that would tell us how many...there are and who owns them.” These sensible measures are yet to be taken, but they should be enacted—along with far tighter restrictions on assault weapons.