DURING HIS CAMPAIGN and periodically since, Maryland Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. has talked about improving gun safety laws, but he has yet to specify which proposals he is prepared to support in the current legislative session. It's time: This month, sponsors of several sensible measures joined Montgomery County Police Chief Charles A. Moose and Sonia Wills, the mother of sniper victim Conrad Johnson, to press for legislative action. That set off the National Rifle Association's political weapons of mass obstruction in Annapolis. The governor's response has been a repeat of his noncommittal let's-see-what-works line.
The proposals would ban the possession or transfer of 45 types of assault-style weapons that are designed chiefly to kill people and that have no place in the open market; expand Maryland's ballistic fingerprinting system from handguns to all firearms; and require gun owners to report lost or stolen weapons to police within 48 hours.
The ballistic tracking system relies on the unique markings made by each gun on shell casings. A "fingerprint" taken before a gun is sold can be entered into a computerized database. Chief Moose noted that in the sniper case, authorities used ballistic fingerprinting to link all of the shootings to the same weapon. Mr. Ehrlich has said only that he would consider the value of such a program. That value depends on the data compiled; the more states that participate the better. Maryland and New York are already conducting tests on handguns. Why not add data on other weapons?
The governor's anti-crime agenda so far is limited to an adaptation of the city of Richmond's Project Exile program. It would toughen state sentencing laws for criminals caught with firearms while relying on closer cooperation with federal prosecutors. Mr. Ehrlich proposes increasing the number of crimes that carry a minimum sentence of five years in prison without the possibility of parole; any prior felony conviction would be grounds for a mandatory minimum sentence. Under Project Exile, state prosecutors defer on gun crimes to federal prosecutors, who have stiffer mandatory minimum sentences available. After the program went into effect, killings in Richmond dropped dramatically. Yet studies of this correlation have shown mixed results. One, by Jens Ludwig of Georgetown University and Steven Raphael of the University of California at Berkeley, found that crime decreased just as much in cities similar to Richmond that did not have such a program, mostly because they had experienced a rise and fall in crime coinciding with patterns in the crack cocaine trade. A spokesman for the NRA, which has supported Project Exile, dismissed the study with typical open-mindedness as "the words of a couple of stuffed shirts in some ivory tower."
Inadequate sentences do not explain the epidemic of gun violence. Far more to blame is the free flow of guns, egged on by those who argue that a heavily armed public is a strong line of defense. The key is to get a grip on gun traffic.