I have thought long and hard about Realco Guns, the gun shop located on Marlboro Pike in Forestville. Although the shop is small and unimposing, it is the Washington area's biggest source of guns that are used in crime.

Indeed, information compiled by the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms (ATF) reveals that from 1996 to 1998, Realco ranked among the top 15 gun dealers in the nation that were the source of crime guns. A 1999 ATF study also revealed that many of the crime weapons traced to Realco are the semiautomatic pistols most frequently recovered in crimes committed by criminals under 25 years of age.

According to federal, state and local officials, Realco has never been cited or prosecuted for any violation of the law. By way of explaining their extraordinary traffic in crime guns, Realco owners say the store sits in a high-crime area, and that more guns are stolen in high-crime areas.

As I see it, Realco may be complying with the letter of the law, but I highly doubt it is complying with the spirit of the law, especially where the straw purchasers are concerned. Straw purchasers are customers with clean records who buy guns for people who cannot pass a criminal background check. While Realco owners claim they go to great lengths to screen customers and kick suspected straw purchasers out of their store, I am somewhat skeptical about how often that actually happens.

Realco is located in the 25th Legislative District, which I represent. If I could, I would close it down tomorrow. But I am not foolish enough to believe that would solve the problem. There are plenty of other gun stores to take Realco's place. If Realco can comply with the law and still be a major source of crime guns, obviously, we need stronger laws.

It should be noted that the law dealing with straw purchasers provides that any gun dealer who knowingly engages in a straw purchase can be fined up to $25,000 and be sentenced to prison for a maximum of 10 years for each violation. However, if convicted, the dealer is guilty only of a misdemeanor. Being a knowing accomplice in a purchase that puts a gun into the hands of someone who could not buy a gun legally is a serious offense and warrants being classed as a felony.

To that end, I will introduce legislation in the next session to make engaging in a straw purchase a felony. Unlike a misdemeanor, a felony conviction would subject the dealer to strong penalties for conviction of subsequent felonies.

Although Maryland is among the states with relatively strong gun laws, easy accessibility to guns and its tragic consequences continue to set our nation and our state apart from all other nations of the world. In 1996 there were 30 people killed by handguns in Great Britain, 211 in Germany and 106 in Canada. The United States racked up 9,390 handgun deaths that year.

On June 7, the Maryland Center for Substance Abuse revealed that 83 percent of Maryland juvenile detainees report they can obtain a gun; 54 percent could obtain a gun in one day; almost 20 percent have shot someone in the past year; and 28 percent were shot at in the past year.

Operations such as Realco, which serve as arsenals of crime guns, play a key role in making guns so easy to get. Nowhere in the world are guns as easy to obtain as they are in the United States. And the price we pay for that easy accessibility is the thousands of lives snuffed out by guns every year. And it is a price we will continue to pay until we, like all other nations, make guns very difficult to get.

-- Ulysses Currie

a Democrat, represents Prince George's County in the Maryland Senate.