Little Effect Predicted on Gun Checks
By Pierre Thomas
In most parts of the country, the Supreme Court's decision to strike down a key provision of the Brady handgun law will have little practical effect on efforts to check the criminal backgrounds of firearms purchasers, according to law enforcement officials.
Early indications are that police and sheriff's departments that are complying with the law's background check provision will likely continue to do so without the federal mandate because they see the measure as essential to good law enforcement.
In its decision, the Supreme Court said it was unconstitutional for Congress to force local law enforcement agencies to carry out a provision of the law that requires a criminal background of gun purchasers. But it did not preclude police who want to make such checks from doing so.
"Without question, the majority of police executives we deal with have indicated that they will continue to do the background check," said Daniel Rosenblatt, executive director of the 16,000-member International Association of Chiefs of Police. Rosenblatt joined a number of police experts, including the National Association of Police Organizations, in calling for continued support for Brady.
In addition, many states including Virginia, the District and Maryland already have laws on the books that are equal or more stringent measures than the Brady law, and those laws are unaffected by the ruling. Virginia has an instant check system that combs data banks for the criminal record of potential gun purchasers, and Maryland has a seven-day waiting period for handgun purchases. Handgun sales are banned in the District.
Law enforcement officials chose to view the debate about the Brady law not in constitutional terms but instead as strictly a crime-fighting issue. A number also indicated that the court's decision further widens the growing gap between several key law enforcement groups and the National Rifle Association, the law's chief adversary.
NRA chief lobbyist Tanya Metaksa hailed the high court's decision, saying that it protected "local law enforcement from federal mandates that are unwarranted, unfunded and unwelcome."
That view was decidely different from the nation's largest law enforcement groups.
"We urge the public not to be taken in by the special interests who would portray this decision as either a great victory or a great defeat for reasonable regulation of firearms" said Gilbert G. Gallegos, president of the 278,000-member Fraternal Order of Police. "The battle to ensure that criminals do not obtain weapons . . . will go on."
The sheriff's departments that brought the case to the high court argued that the time and effort it took to carry out the Brady law placed an unreasonable strain on their overworked departments.
Aldine Moser Jr., executive director of the National Sheriffs' Association said that most of his members would likely continue to conduct the background checks if they already were doing them. But he acknowledged that for some Brady implementation has been a "big issue."
"A lot depends on your existing personnel, computerization and time, especially if you are small," Moser said. The overwhelming majority of law enforcement agencies are small, so allocation of scarce resources is always a consideration, he said. However, the overriding view is that gun checks represent effective law enforcement.
That position has been bolstered by figures from the Justice and Treasury departments estimating that during the 1994 Brady act's first 28 months, 186,000 over-the-counter gun sales were blocked. More than 70 percent of those involved people who had been convicted or indicted on felony charges, Clinton administration officials said. The figures are derived from surveys conducted of law enforcement agencies around the country.
But a number of gun control opponents have challenged the accuracy of the numbers and the fairness of its implementation, and have criticized the Clinton administration for not prosecuting those who have illegally attempted to purchase handguns.
"A lot of people we have talked to have been denied wrongfully," said the NRA's Metaksa. "But nobody is being prosecuted for breaking a law that carries a mandatory federal prison term." Only seven people have been prosecuted and three placed in jail for violating the law, Metaksa said.
Kent Markus, counselor to Attorney General Janet Reno, disputed the NRA's prosecution numbers and offered his own figures showing at least 70 federal prosecutions and 52 convictions since the act was passed. He added that those numbers were conservative because the department had not done a formal national survey.
Asked about the accuracy of the survey information, Markus said, "The authors of those figures used statistically reliable methodology."
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