The Cavalier Daily
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Controlling owners, not their guns

THOSE WHO write gun control laws hope to respond to a range of problems, not just the existence of guns. Contrary to the paranoid claims of the NRA, most people introducing gun control laws do not want to eliminate guns from society. Guns should not be taken from the hands of the people, but rather regulated so that the presence of guns does not cause so much harm.

The problems regulators hope to address can be broken down into safety issues and criminal use. Laws already on the books and included in the recent settlement between gunmakers Smith & Wesson and a variety of city and state governments, as well as federal agencies, might be enough to address the problems as well as is possible.

The horror stories that often take center stage in the media hinge on safety in a variety of ways. Accidental shootings in homes always jerk tears and lead to calls for safer guns. This ignores the simple truth that guns are inherently dangerous. They're supposed to be -- otherwise there's not much point. Nonetheless, the recent settlement signed by Smith & Wesson has some helpful terms for creating safer guns -- notably a requirement for a 10-pound resistance on the trigger. The oft-requested child safety locks are also included.

Another safety problem arises from the guns themselves, and not just children's use of them. So-called "Saturday night specials" -- cheap, inferior guns -- often misfire after a few uses, injuring the shooter. Regulations can and should be adopted to outlaw them. It's bad enough that guns endanger the people who get shot at. They should not be allowed to endanger the shooters as well.

Neither of these problems will be completely solved by regulations. Child safety locks do not work if they are not used. Even with the 10-pound trigger, a gun will still endanger children if it is not properly secured. Guns, however safe, will misfire if they are not cleaned and taken care of properly. Ultimately, responsibility for gun safety lies with the owner.

Unfortunately, the impetus for gun control laws largely arises from the very tragedies that regulations of this kind can only reduce, not prevent. The public ought to be on guard against an unreasoning push to ban weapons simply because some users act irresponsibly.

The response should be to control the owners of guns. We can ensure that the owners know how they should act. This centers around mandatory licensing of all gun owners. If the license follows a mandatory training course, then it provides a check to ensure that gun owners at least have been told how to use their weapons properly.

To prevent firearms crimes, we can check to make sure gun owners do not have a history of violence, and we can try to deter them from violence. If instituted at gun shows and linked into a national database, mandatory waiting periods and background checks would be effective in ensuring that felons would not be able to buy firearms. A side benefit is that a license could be used to expedite the background checking process for legitimate buyers.

Of course, people are likely to find a way around any regulations of this kind. Two provisions in the Smith & Wesson deal would help ensure that those who skirt the regulations don't get off scot-free. The use of a hidden serial number, to identify a gun even if a criminal files off the more obvious markings, would help in tracking weapons. Another regulation would be even more useful. Since every weapon is test-fired before sale, the casings can be scanned into a national database, so that police can identify the gun used in a crime, even if they do not have it in hand.

The NRA's proposal to decrease gun violence, called "Project Exile" and based on a successful Richmond program, mandates strict penalties for using a handgun in a crime. While heavier penalties are only marginally effective deterrents, their impact would be enhanced through more stringent tracing regulations. If criminals have good reason to fear being caught, then the heightened penalties will weigh more on their decision whether to commit a crime or not.

Ultimately, no level of regulation or enforcement can completely stop gun accidents or violence. The most public and awful incidents of gun violence often occur when first-time offenders use firearms in sprees. No number of laws can prevent these. Nor can regulations remove the social and economic factors that incite crime in the first place.

Nonetheless, a stronger and more effective penalty system, combined with a decrease in the availability of cheaply made guns, can deter the less spectacular -- and more common -- crimes. Design changes and improved testing can foster the creation of safer guns.

The need for personal protection and the terms of the Constitution make the continued presence of firearms in America inevitable. Better regulations can ensure that their presence does not endanger the public.

(Sparky Clarkson's column appears Tuesdays in The Cavalier Daily.)