Stiffer Jail Terms Will Make Gunmen More Gun Shy

Gun control is a highly divisive issue that pits citizens who believe that the right to own guns for legitimate purposes is constitutionally guaranteed against those who want to sharply reduce the number of guns in circulation. But it is both desirable and possible to cut down on the guns in the hands of thugs and criminals without curtailing the right to own guns for other purposes.

An effective gun-control policy must try to deter the use of guns to commit crimes and to intimidate at school and elsewhere. The best way to do this is for states to impose a stiffer punishment on miscreants who use guns for criminal ends. A jail sentence--or additional time--should be added to the usual punishment for a crime if guns are involved.

If the normal punishment for robbery is a year in jail, for example, this sentence might be doubled, to two years, when guns are involved. The punishment for using guns could depend on the severity of the crime, whether the gun was fired, and even on whether it was likely to be fired.

Many gun-control advocates shrink from reliance on imprisonment and other punishments for the use of guns to commit crimes because these seem too indirect and uncertain to be effective deterrents. But considerable evidence, summarized by James Q. Wilson and Richard J. Herrenstein in their Crime and Human Nature, indicates that greater certainty of apprehension and conviction is an effective deterrent to robbery and most other serious crimes. For this reason, I have advocated much greater spending on police and courts to increase apprehension of criminals and expedite their conviction (BW--Nov. 29).

CLEAR SIGNAL. To increase the certainty of punishment for criminal use of guns, it may be desirable for states to mandate the extra jail sentences, so that little discretion is left to judges, juries, and prosecutors. A rapidly growing number of states require additional punishments when guns are involved. True, some federal judges have criticized the mandating of sentences for federal crimes such as drug sales or white-collar crime, but a state mandatory term sends a clear signal about the risk of using guns to perpetrate crimes.

Harsher punishment for those who use guns to commit crimes does not penalize ownership of guns by shopkeepers and others who are vulnerable to criminal attacks. In the confrontation between criminals and their prey, this approach to gun control deals potential targets a better hand.

A heavy tax on gun sales or on the purchase of ammunition--as proposed recently by Senator Daniel P. Moynihan (D-N.Y.)--does not punish the use of guns. It just raises the cost of acquiring and loading them. Such taxes would not only reduce the demand for guns by shopkeepers and others who buy them legally, but they make it that much cheaper to acquire them illegally. Although these taxes have no direct effect on criminals, who buy their weapons on the underground market, they do have bad indirect effects. Taxes make guns and ammunition more--not less--readily available to criminal elements because more guns and ammunition will be siphoned off into the underground economy by people seeking to evade the taxes on legal sales.

LESS RESISTANCE? Even if taxes didn't increase the number of guns in the hands of criminals, they tend to raise the incidence of crime. Overall, criminals will expect less armed resistance from shopkeepers and homeowners if taxes reduce purchases of guns by people who want to defend themselves.

Some states require that all weapons be registered, and Congress recently passed the Brady Bill, which mandates a week's delay before applications to buy guns can be approved. Officials can use the delay to check an applicant's background for criminal records and other problems. Such procedures are worthwhile because they may cut down on impulsive gun purchases that lead to violence.

But they do little to keep guns out of the hands of teenagers and criminals who obtain their weapons underground, where guns are sold to anyone who can pay for them. This is the route by which arsenals of weapons have found their way into inner cities and elsewhere in the U.S. Guns continue to be smuggled onto the illegal market from abroad, from military stock, and from crooked gun dealers.

In other words, the fatal difficulty in relying only on registration and approval is that there are two almost completely discrete markets for weapons. The legitimate market caters to people who want guns for hunting and for protection against holdups and burglaries. The gray market caters to criminals who want weapons to help them steal, intimidate, rape, participate in gang warfare, and sell drugs. Cooling-off periods and other controls on gun sales by legitimate dealers have little effect on an underground market that ignores them.

The right approach to gun control can get widespread agreement and would not be subject to the bitter controversies that plague other approaches to this issue. This one supports registration and cooling-off periods, but it relies mainly on punishing those who use guns for crime and intimidation.

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