Time to Talk Guns

Monday, October 9, 2006

THE SLAUGHTER of five girls in a Pennsylvania classroom, closely following school shootings in Colorado and Wisconsin, has prompted President Bush to call a national summit on school violence. It is right that the nation not just mourn the heartbreak of last week's shootings but that its leaders and other citizens talk about how to prevent such tragedies. How useful tomorrow's conversation will be, however, depends on the administration's willingness to have all voices heard. And that must include those calling for a more rational approach to gun control.

The day after a gunman carried out the deadly assault in an Amish school, Mr. Bush said that he had asked Attorney General Alberto R. Gonzales and Education Secretary Margaret Spellings to convene a meeting to determine how the federal government can help states and local governments improve school safety. There was an unfortunate sense of deja vu to the president's announcement: After the mass shootings at Columbine High School, President Bill Clinton held a summit on youth violence in 1999. Useful strategies resulted from the attention paid to Columbine. Schools that thought they had no need for safety and evacuation plans moved quickly to put some in place. Bullying, once viewed as a rite of childhood passage, was finally treated as a problem not to be tolerated. There was a new awareness that threats should be treated seriously.

But while the Clinton administration showed a willingness to discuss the role of guns in these incidents, the current administration and the Republican Congress have put in place policies that make it too easy for too many people to get guns. Worse, the wrong people are getting more dangerous guns.

We appreciate the president's resolve to gather experts, including those in law enforcement. Yet when it comes to gun legislation, the experts are ignored as the gun lobby scores victory after victory. Consider that President Bush signed a law that permits the destruction of gun check records within 24 hours (despite criticism from a Government Accountability Office report); let the federal assault weapons ban expire (despite evidence that it lowered the rate at which assault weapons were used in crime); is backing bills that prevent law enforcement from putting corrupt gun dealers out of business (over the objection of police groups); and restricted the ability of police to use crime gun trace data (again despite police objections).

It may be true that no law could have stopped the Pennsylvania school killer. Maybe, though, stricter laws would have given him pause. And, even if his victims could not have been saved, certainly some of the 10,100 people murdered with guns or some of the 477,040 people who were victims of gun violence last year would have been spared.

© 2006 The Washington Post Company