Why is it that when it comes to gun control these days, we're firing so many blanks?
When Gov. Ed Rendell convened his Commission to Address Gun Violence at the end of March, you might have expected the status quo to be in the crosshairs. Two weeks before, a 16-year-old was gunned down outside Pittsburgh's Carrick High School. The weekend before that, nine Philadelphia residents were killed with guns. That same month, five people were shot dead in in York -- York! -- in a single week.
What's more, behind that rash of violence were broader, worrisome trends. Gun violence is lower than it was in the crime-plagued early 1990s, but it's trended higher over the past five years. It's getting younger as well: Between 2001 and 2003, the number of 16-year-olds involved in firearms offenses statewide has jumped by 30 percent.
No one knew this better than the 26 members of the commission, who compiled those numbers and whose members were drawn largely from law enforcement. Yet six weeks after Rendell created it, the commission produced a report that was nothing to get fired up about. Its proposals were heavy on such after-the-fact remedies as tracking gun use and additional mandatory prison time. My personal favorite recommendation was that the state should "Disqualify identified terrorists from possessing a gun." (Good idea! Might I suggest keeping them away from airports too?)
Even these tepid measures didn't get the panel's full backing. Two Republican state legislators and the state's attorney general, Tom Corbett, abstained from voting on the proposals. And the modest measures the commission did approve have met resistance already.
On June 7, the state House overwhelmingly rejected a commission proposal offered by Squirrel Hill Democrat Dan Frankel: that anyone buying a stolen weapon be charged with a second-degree felony. (Currently, you face such a penalty only if you run a business fencing stolen goods.) The measure failed by more than a two-to-one margin.
The measure "would have zero effect on law-abiding gun owners," Frankel said in a statement issued afterward. "[G]un owners should want this to pass." After all, it's their guns being stolen. So much for "not from my cold dead hands."
Despite Frankel's bafflement, the outcome isn't surprising. Gun-rights groups don't like it when Democrats propose even modest gun-control measures. And gun-control advocates don't get very excited when modest measures are all Democrats propose. (Neither do Democrats, apparently, since many of them also opposed Frankel's measure.) Frankel was gunning for an elephant with a BB gun -- he lacked the necessary firepower. That's been the story for Democrats on lots of issues lately.
You can't blame Frankel for training his sights on an easier target. A year ago, he was going after bigger game -- trying to extend a 1994 federal ban on assault weapons -- but got nowhere. The federal ban expired last year, but Frankel sought to write the measure into state law, keeping it alive within Pennsylvania's borders. He failed even though he had the backing of local police: Some estimates are that assault weapons murder one out of every five officers killed in the line of duty.
But even as Frankel was trying to find support for this year's watered-down measure, a June 4 shooting in Homewood demonstrated the weaknesses in the tougher measure he wanted a year ago.
During that shooting, two Pittsburgh police officers were fired on some 60 times by a suspect said to be armed with an Intratec AB-10. The weapon looks a lot like an assault weapon, and fires a lot like one too. That's because the AB-10 is a variant of the Intratec Tec-9, which in the early 1990s was notoriously popular among criminals, including the Columbine shooters. The 1994 ban prohibited the Tec-9, but Intratec promptly replaced it with the AB-10. (The "AB" stands for "after ban.") Except for some cosmetic changes, however, the two guns are practically identical.
That's the problem with most gun-control measures these days. Gun makers are always a step ahead, and gun-control advocates can only pass, at best, halfway measures that often miss the target. And when gun violence doesn't go down, the failure gives ammunition to those who say "more laws aren't the answer to the problem."
The lesson is if you're hunting a bear, don't bring a .22. It's only going to make him mad.