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Running Out the Gunrunners

Assembly-passed measure limiting handgun purchases to one at a time aims to dry up black market sales of firearms to youths, others.

May 02, 1999|WALLY KNOX | Assemblyman Wally Knox (D-Los Angeles) represents portions of the San Fernando Valley and Westside

The solemn legacy of the Littleton, Colo., massacre will be to galvanize the gun control movement in the California state Legislature and across the nation. It is a sad truth that nothing focuses political will on passage of tighter gun restrictions than the death of defenseless children and their teachers.

Our toughest anti-gun laws have come in the wake of the most gut-wrenching tragedies. The Stockton schoolyard massacre by Patrick Purdy spurred enactment of the state Roberti-Roos assault weapons ban; the senseless slayings at 101 California St. in San Francisco prompted passage of the federal assault weapons ban by Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.); and now Littleton.

One searing question raised by the slaughter of innocents at Columbine High School is how was it possible that the young people responsible for the violence amassed such arsenals of guns and explosives? Although it is impossible to claim that any new law could prevent such a horror in the future, there are specific laws that could severely curtail gun trafficking to kids.

Ironically the gun industry portrays itself, and is perceived by many, as an already tightly regulated field. After all, we now have an assault weapons ban, waiting periods, background checks and outright prohibitions on gun ownership by felons, persons under restraining orders and others deemed unfit to possess a gun. But there is one gaping hole in this system. Any person who is otherwise qualified can walk into any licensed dealer in California and purchase an unlimited number of guns.

Gunrunners take advantage of this ability to purchase multiple handguns, ostensibly for themselves but in reality to be sold to kids, felons and anyone who can't get one legally on their own. Right now, they can make a pretty good living by selling 10 or 20 weapons a month on the black market.

My legislation limiting handgun purchases by individuals to one at a time aims to dry up the black market sale of firearms to youths and others who cannot legally obtain them. The concept is simple. Law-abiding citizens could still purchase a gun, but gunrunners would be driven out of business and the black market pipeline of violence would dry up.

The California attorney general's office reports that more than 40,000 handguns were part of a multiple purchase in 1998, with individual sales ranging from 2 to 60 guns. The Los Angeles Police Department's new gun-tracking capabilities have produced the startling revelation that 25% to 30% of the guns they traced originated in straw purchases through licensed dealers.

These compelling figures have brought about a shift in thinking about how guns get into the hands of underage youths. Conventional wisdom used to be that kids stole the guns they used. Now computer data show that 10% of youth crime guns are the result of theft, but that three times as many are from originally legal sales.

Law enforcement quickly concluded that the best way to fight this scourge is to dry it up at the source. The Los Angeles City Council, at the instigation of Councilman Mike Feuer, in January became the first municipality in the state to pass a one-gun ordinance. It will take effect June 3. The city and the LAPD are strong supporters of my statewide legislation because, although the local law is an excellent step forward, it leaves open the prospect that straw purchasers will simply move to neighboring locales and that the guns will continue to be trafficked into our communities.

Nearly 48 hours to the minute after the Littleton slayings occurred, the state Assembly passed my legislation to limit handgun purchases to one per month. After an emotional 90-minute debate, many members cast courageous votes in favor of the measure despite the possibility of retaliation from the powerful National Rifle Assn. The bill will now be heard by the state Senate.

Just five days ago, President Clinton announced a federal proposal to improve on the statewide effort with a national one-gun limitation. The momentum is growing against the gunrunners. We plan to put them out of business--first in Los Angeles, next in California and finally in the entire country.

Sadly, the fallen of Littleton will have made a difference.

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