In an interview on "Good Morning, America" last week, the president said that we should consider registering guns, just as we register cars. He's right, of course. In the same way that we require the registration of cars, we should require that the sale or transfer of firearms -- at least handguns -- be reported to law enforcement authorities.
Registration is a vital law enforcement tool. It's a crime-solver. By permitting guns to be readily traced back to their last lawful owner, police can more readily identify who pulled the trigger and, if the shooter is a prohibited purchaser, who illegally sold or transferred the gun to the shooter. When police are unable to trace a gun, a criminal and his accomplice can, quite literally, get away with murder. And that's what happens all too often.
It took law enforcement officials two weeks to determine who sold the TEC-9 assault pistol to the two shooters in Littleton, Colo. And if the seller hadn't identified himself, the police might never have made the link. The police in Littleton were not searching for the killers; the two killed themselves. But in many criminal investigations, the shooters and their accomplices are not identified and, thanks in part to weak gun laws, they may never be caught.
The gun lobby will insist that the president has made a critical miscalculation. No sitting president since Lyndon B. Johnson has dared suggest that firearms should be registered. The NRA would like everyone to believe that gun registration, in whatever form, is the third rail of American politics.
Some third rail. A public opinion survey conducted last year by the National Opinion Research Center found that 85 percent of Americans, including 75 percent of gun owners, support mandatory registration of handguns.
It all comes down to common sense. Almost everywhere else in the world, sales or transfers of firearms must be recorded. Some countries, such as Japan and Great Britain, have banned handguns altogether.
Meanwhile, in this country, it took a massacre the size of Littleton for congressional leaders to acknowledge that background checks should be conducted at gun shows. And it was regarded as a giant step forward when the Senate a few weeks ago voted to prohibit the sale of AK-47s and Uzis to children. Requiring gun manufacturers to provide a simple safety lock with every handgun they sell was, by American standards, a major accomplishment.
So as the House of Representatives prepares to consider the Senate-passed gun legislation, congressional leaders are urging caution. Some on both sides are suggesting that going beyond the Senate-passed bill may be going too far. Establishing a minimum 72-hour waiting period on handgun purchases so that law enforcement can do a more thorough background check? Not likely. Limiting handgun purchases to one handgun per month so that professional gun traffickers cannot go around buying 50 or 100 guns a month? Forget it, too controversial.
And while the House might consider prohibiting the sale of handguns at gun shows to those between the ages of 18 and 21, it might stop short of prohibiting 18-year-olds from actually possessing handguns. It doesn't seem to matter that 18- and 19-year-olds lead the nation in homicides. These youth shouldn't be limited, so the argument goes, to possessing rifles and shotguns. They need handguns.
Is it any wonder that the president seemed upset the other day when he was questioned about his commitment to tougher gun laws? This president has done far more than any other to advance our thinking about guns, and yet Congress is still playing political games. When the Senate took up the issue of guns a few weeks ago, the first amendment that passed was one that would have gutted our gun laws, stopping Brady background checks on criminals reclaiming guns at pawn shops and permitting federally licensed gun dealers to sell at gun shows in all 50 states. Now some in the House want to limit the time that can be taken for background checks at gun shows -- even if the records are showing a problem, such as a felony arrest, that needs more investigation. Allowing felons to get guns in the interest of promoting quick gun sales makes no sense.
When is this insanity going to end? Anyone who bemoans the "inconvenience" that these new gun-show restrictions might impose on gun-show promoters should be required to talk to as many victims of gun violence as I have. Let them start with some of the 13 mothers who every day lose a child to gun violence. And then let them talk to some of the many children who have lost classmates.
The simple truth is that we don't need to ban guns in this country to reduce gun violence. All we need are common-sense gun laws. Since the Brady Law was passed in 1993, gun crimes have dropped sharply. But we still have so far to go. Common sense, when it comes to guns, remains in short supply. At least in Congress.
The writer is the chair of Handgun Control and the Center to Prevent Handgun Violence.