LAST WEEKEND the Federal Bureau of Investigation reported that fully 52 percent of last year's homicides were committed with handguns. In the face of this evidence, it is hard to see how anyone could object to the new handgun-control proposals from Maryland Attorney General Joseph Curran. Because Mr. Curran had the nerve to say that, in the long run, handguns should be banned except in special circumstances, he has been greeted as a radical -- not just by gun supporters but also by Gov. Parris Glendening, a proponent of incremental gun control. But Mr. Curran's proposals are detailed and reasonable. Besides, guns are an issue where radical makes sense.
Mr. Curran's proposals start with tougher law enforcement. Maryland's background checks for gun purchasers, which are already demanding by national standards, would be made stricter: They would deny guns to anyone who has committed a misdemeanor, not just a felony, and people with a history of violence or mental instability would be excluded, too. This seems not only sensible but modest: Under existing law, somebody prone to violence would be denied a permit to carry a gun in public places, so denying that same person a permit to keep a gun under his pillow seems entirely fair. Mr. Curran proposes, just as reasonably, that selling or owning guns illegally be made a felony, and that police officers be permitted to wear body wires when going after black-market gun dealers.
Next, Mr. Curran aims to increase pressure on gun companies to make their products safer by incorporating safety locks and other such devices. He urges Congress to bring guns under its regulatory umbrella; given that the feds already lay down safety standards on everything from toys to cars, this seems a small request. He also endorses Mr. Glendening's efforts to require handguns sold in Maryland to incorporate technology that would restrict their use to registered owners. This would cut down on the tragedies that ensue when children discover parents' guns hidden in the sock drawer as well as prevent criminals from using stolen guns.
Finally, the Curran plan involves a public education campaign. He would enlist teachers, doctors and business leaders in an effort to convince people that guns are like tobacco -- dangerous to your health. At present, too many people think that buying a gun increases personal safety rather than the opposite. But guns are used in self-defense much less than they are used in moments of anger, depression or carelessness. The presence of a gun in the home allows domestic disputes to turn lethal, and fully half the deaths from firearms each year involve suicide.
Having laid out his views, Mr. Curran must now work to realize them. The first legislative priority is to get the governor's smart-gun law enacted; other measures may have to wait a while. But it is never too soon to campaign for public understanding, nor to use that understanding as a tool to get gun makers to change. Just this week, Smith & Wesson Corp., the biggest purveyor of handguns, announced that dealers selling its products must henceforth pledge to avoid illegal buyers; this marks the first attempt by gun manufacturers to control the marketing of their wares. If he puts his heart into it, Mr. Curran's public education campaign may produce results as fast as legislation can.