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  Sniper Opens New Gun Control Debate
by W. James Antle III
20 October 2002

This author examines arguments both in favor of and against gun control, and why the extremists who oppose guns are the reason why gun control legislation is not going to pass.

In our politically saturated culture, hardly an event becomes a major news story without some group claiming that it proves that government should enact its political agenda. This practice is endemic among left-wing organizations, although conservatives are by no means exempt. So it is hardly surprising that some are using the recent spate of deadly sniper attacks in Maryland and northern Virginia to press for more gun control laws.
In a recent press release, Sarah Brady used the sniper shootings as an opportunity to remind voters that the federal assault weapons ban will expire in less than two years. Yet that ban is currently in place and has obviously failed to prevent these shootings. If a weapon covered by that ban was used in these attacks, then the perpetrator (or perpetrators) was able to obtain it despite the law. If another type of gun was used, and there are legal weapons with such capabilities, then the ban is utterly irrelevant to this situation. The fact of the matter is it is largely a ban on scary-looking guns regardless of their capabilities.

Guns in the wrong hands can do great evil, snuffing out innocent lives. No one suggests that we disarm the police as a result. This is because the opposite is also true – guns in the right hands can save lives. But this does not only apply to police officers; by some estimates, there are 2.5 million defensive gun uses per annum by private citizens. Nationally syndicated columnist Thomas Sowell has written that “Weapons matter primarily when the wrong people have them and the right people don’t.”

Too often, proponents of gun control fail to make these important distinctions, instead arguing that the very presence of guns increases criminality and that anyone who objects to their various policy proposals must want to enable criminals to use guns. The “gun lobby” is frequently presented as either being in cahoots with criminals or simply indifferent to the consequences of gun violence in their zeal to enrich firearms manufacturers.
This is the line taken by some who argue in favor of a national ballistic fingerprint database. When the Bush administration did not immediately endorse this idea, although it did agree to study it, Congressman Jim Moran (D-VA) asked why anyone would want to “protect” someone like the serial sniper, as if that was the administration’s objective.
Under this proposal, gun manufacturers would test-fire each new gun and give the government the bullet and shell casing so they could enter the markings into a database. Bullets and shell casings found at crime scenes could then be referenced against this database in order to locate the weapon’s serial number and owner. If such a system were in place now, this could conceivably help the sniper investigation.

Dick Meyer, in an “Against the Grain” commentary posted on CBSNews.com, suggests that the only obstacle to creating a national ballistics fingerprint bank is the irrational opposition of groups like the National Rifle Association. A veteran CBS reporter and producer, Meyer calls the idea a “no-brainer,” but it does carry some practical problems. There are 200 million guns already in circulation that would not be covered by the database. Many criminals use stolen guns. The fingerprint can be altered. Most importantly, there are serious questions about the accuracy of ballistic fingerprinting.

But the main reason the NRA and other gun-rights organizations oppose the idea is one that gun-tracking proponents like Meyer fail to acknowledge. Civil rights attorney Don Kates, a leading scholar on firearms issues, once wrote an essay entitled “Poisoning the Well for Gun Control” (which is featured as a chapter in the book he wrote with criminologist Gary Kleck, Armed: New Perspectives on Gun Control) in which he argued that most Americans favor both the right to armed self-defense and moderate gun controls, but the not-so-veiled prohibitionist sentiments of antigun activists have actually made the enactment of modest controls harder. By shifting the emphasis away from keeping guns out of the wrong hands toward a more sweeping animus against guns, gun owners have come to oppose even moderate controls as incremental steps toward a ban. (Liberal American Partisan columnist James Hall was careful to contrast ballistic fingerprint tracking with a prohibition on gun ownership in his endorsement of the proposal.)

If gun owners could be sure that a ballistics fingerprint collection was not a prelude to registration and confiscation, few would object to pursuing the idea to whatever extent it could be made feasible. It is the antigun statements and premises of Brady, the Million Mom March and other leading forces for gun control, rather than NRA paranoia, that has elicited opposition.

The debate is likely to continue. And those living around the Beltway will live in fear until the killer in their midst is stopped, while those living in the Beltway will continue on with their political agendas.

Email W. James Antle III