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Loaded Questions

Another round in an endless debate

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So it's come to this. Groups like the National Rifle Association, which routinely claim to represent "responsible gun owners," are opposing a bill to make gun owners act ... well ... responsibly.

These days, gun-rights advocates are upset at Pittsburgh City Council, which is weighing a measure requiring gun owners to tell police when a firearm is lost or stolen. You wouldn't think such a law would be necessary. If somebody stole my TV, I wouldn't need to be threatened with prison in order to tell someone. The way I've always understood the law, the motive for reporting theft is putting the other guy in jail.

Apparently, though, it doesn't work that way with guns. Each year, Pittsburgh police recover more than 1,000 guns from people who aren't registered to own them. Yet only 10 percent of those guns have been reported stolen.

Sometimes, gun owners don't realize the gun has been missing. ("Sorry, officer, I thought it was in my other pants.") But often the registered owner is a "straw purchaser" -- someone who buys the gun to give it to someone else. That "someone else" is usually an ex-con legally prohibited from getting a gun on his own. But if the gun is used in a crime, the original buyer can always say he didn't know it was missing.

The city's bill has problems. For one thing, it may not be legal. Regulating firearms is usually a state responsibility, and the Supreme Court is weighing the constitutionality of a similar measure in Philadelphia. Even if the court permits a Pittsburgh-style ordinance, it won't apply to straw purchasers who live outside the city and give guns to locals. A statewide law would be better, but the legislature defeated such a measure last spring. (Pro-gun forces celebrated by raffling off a handgun at a rally. Who says they take gun ownership lightly!)

On the other hand, why wouldn't a responsible gun owner report a missing weapon to police? Isn't that how we define "responsibility"?

The problem with the gun debate is that it never seems to change. The gun-rights folks always insist that instead of creating new laws, we need to do a better job of enforcing the old ones. Or, as Kim Stolfer of the Allegheny County Sportsmen's League said at a Nov. 18 City Council hearing, "If you really want to stop violent crime ... prosecute our laws."

Whenever I hear gun-rights advocates say "enforce the laws we already have!" I have the feeling they don't really mean it. Often, when law enforcement does begin to enforce the law, gun owners begin complaining about "jackbooted thugs." Who can forget right-wing radio host G. Gordon Liddy's famed suggestion that, if law enforcement comes to confiscate a weapon, gun owners should "Kill the sons of bitches"? (In fairness to Liddy, I'm sure this advice was only intended for responsible gun owners.)

But the solutions proposed on the other side have become familiar, too. The only argument is whether we punish people under new laws, or more harshly under the old ones.

Last year, CP ran a feature story on straw purchases, and traced the gun used in one crime to a local heroin addict. "When you're dope-sick, and there is no money, you'd do anything," she told us. And although straw purchasing is a crime, and although the addict pled guilty to multiple counts, she ended up only getting probation.

"The drug users tend to be more remorseful because they're doing something they don't want to do," a city detective explained to CP.

Of course, that's just the kind of criminal-coddling Stolfer opposes. (He actually cited the CP article before council, which shows just how weird the debate has gotten.) But had you met this woman, you'd know that the threat of jail wouldn't have made any difference. Addicts fear withdrawal more than prison. Unless we find a more effective way of helping them, they'll go on giving criminals the money to buy guns, and even make the purchase themselves. This law probably won't change that fact.

I wouldn't fault council for passing it anyway. With people bleeding in the streets of Pittsburgh, and oozing indifference in Harrisburg, city officials have few other options. Gun-nut fantasies notwithstanding, I don't see how it could hurt the responsible owners everyone professes to care about.

Still, I can't help but feel this whole debate is missing the target.

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