We're under the gun so let's register it
By James Alan Fox
Monday, December 5, 2005

Gun homicides in Boston are up by a few; shootings are up even more; and fear of violence is running rampant. City leaders, in response, have proposed a variety of gun control initiatives - some good, some bad and some unproven.

Mayor Tom Menino wants to set up anonymous tip lines to encourage residents, particularly youngsters, to "drop a dime" if they are aware of someone packing heat. Whether they would trust the protection of anonymity against being labeled a snitch or, worse, against retaliation is unclear.

Menino also announced plans to confiscate from stores all their "Stop Snitchin" T-shirts, worn presumably to intimidate witnesses to crime. I hardly think that this will curtail witness intimidation. What if instead city officials were to wear T-shirts that said "Stop Intimidatin"? And, if the mayor wants to seize retail products from shelves, why not guns rather than shirts?

City Councilman Rob Consalvo dreams of a gun-offender registry, patterned after the sex-offender database. Still, I wonder why we don't just register the guns - all guns.

While each of these proposals has some appeal, at least symbolically, it remains questionable whether they will take more than a nibble out of gun crime. It's like trying to bail out the Titanic with a paper cup. Guns flow into the region faster than we can remove them through confiscation or voluntary surrender.

Massachusetts is swimming against a very strong national tide vigorously fueled and financed by the powerful gun lobby. We know there are WMDs (Weapons of Mass. Destruction) out there. Sadly, Congress and the president seem more concerned about gun owners' rights than gun victims' rights.

On Oct. 26, the Protection of Lawful Commerce in Arms Act was signed into law by President Bush, the best buddy the gun industry could ask for. You may have missed it; virtually every major newspaper seems to have. After all, the White House press corps was at the time Miered in an aborted Supreme Court nomination.

This gun-friendly legislation, opposed by the entire Massachusetts delegation, immunizes the industry from liability, even if gun makers pander to criminals through shameless advertising or fail to take reasonable precautions against supplying a crime gun market.

Less than 1 percent of licensed firearms dealers nationwide are linked to a majority of guns used in crime, so shouldn't gun makers and distributors be compelled to do something about it? Gun makers know who these dealers are, but apparently choose to close their eyes and profit from sales diverted to criminals.

When Bush argued for tort reform during the 2004 election campaign, who knew this is what he meant? No one, not even the most ardent gun control advocate, prefers the litigious approach to keeping guns out of hands of criminals. But because neither the gun industry nor the Congress appears to be inclined to address the problem, the only strategy for change has been through the courts.

In 2002, Boston settled its lawsuit against the gun industry, dropping a court-ordered agreement with Smith & Wesson that had required genuine gun-distribution reform. In return, gun industry defendants pledged to form a joint council with Boston to address gun violence.

Apparently that promise is not worth whatever paper it was written on. The city hasn't forced compliance; and thanks to Congress, the civil-litigation route is a dead end.

"We are a safer country today," rejoiced NRA Chief Lobbyist Chris W. Cox. "Congress passed this critical legislation and acted to save American icons like Remington, Ruger, Winchester and Smith & Wesson from politically motivated lawsuits."

Well it may be good for industry icons, but what about individuals in Dorchester, or Roxbury or South Boston? How will it save them?

James Alan Fox is the Lipman Family Professor of Criminal Justice at Northeastern University. Talk back at j.fox@neu.edu.