THE ITINERANT gold and silver dealers continue to swing through the Washington area, doing business out of motel rooms. Some still offer to buy unmarked metal -- an open invitation to the traffic in gold and jewelry of, to put it politely, uncertain provenance. This loose and unregulated trade in precious metals provides thieves with a safe and simple way to sell stolen goods. The itinerants don't stop these days in Alexandria, which passed a regulatory ordinance last month, and now they won't be stopping in Arlington either. But they will continue to turn up elsewhere in the area until all of the jurisdictions have acted to protect themselves -- and their neighbors.
Every suburban jurisdiction is now proceeding with legislation . The Arlington County Board passed its ordinance yesterday. The Fairfax County Council has scheduled a hearing for Dec. 8. The Prince George's County Council passed legislation on Wednesday, over the shrieks of a few dealers, and the bill has gone to County Executive Larry Hogan for his signature. There's a slight dispute over the period for which dealers must hold purchases before disposing of them, or melting them. The police would prefer 15 days, but the council, in a concession to the dealers, required only five days. Mr. Hogan would be wise to sign the present bill as it stands. Fifteen days is desirable, but even a five-day hold has proved very useful to police in other jurisdictions. The important thing is to get the law in force before the beginning of the Christmas stealing season and the annual rise in burglary rates.
Montgomery County is, uncharacteristically, moving more slowly than its neighbors. The county council has just held its hearing on a proposed ordinance. But Montgomery, unlike the Virginia counties, puts the hearing at the beginning rather than the end of the process.
Many jewelers and established dealers in precious metals support closer regulation. They see it, correctly, as protection of their own industry. But then there are a few like the dealer who angrily denounced Prince George's bill, protesting, "It doesn't give us our right to work in a free economy without restriction."
Even in a free economy, there is a certain traditional prejudice against the practice of breaking into other people's houses and stealing their watches and teapots. The right to work is not generally interpreted to include the right to work as a burglar. Even at the present moment, when deregulation is much in fashion, most voters feel that there need to be certain legal restrictions on the practice of larceny. That imposes on dealers an obligation to cooperate with the police in ensuring that they do not, even unknowlingly, deal in stolen goods.