YOU MAY HAVE noticed that whenever there's a big news story involving a shooting or the use of guns in a crime in Wahsington, up pops some leader of the National Rifle (Handgun, Saturday Night Special and Lawn Bazooka) Association to make a noisy point of the fact that the District has a strict gun control law on its books. The idea, of course, is to demonstrate that tough anti-pistol laws won't stop the illegal pistol market or keep bad guys from using handguns in crimes. That's true, too, as long as anyone can simply go over the river and through the woods in Virginia to shops where all sorts of pocketable firearms are available for a song.
But leaving aside the logical rebuttal -- namely, that these crimes demonstrate the need for more, not less, extensive control of handguns -- there are additional ways to deal with the people who kill people with guns. Anyone who uses a firearm in a crime should be prepared for sure punishment -- and that is what a number of District council members have been seeking to ensure, through the enactment of mandatory minimum sentences.
Many law enforcement experts have pointed out that such proposals do not necessarily deter crimes as intended because, in many instances, the penalties tie the hands of prosecutors who may be able to obtain criminal convictions through plea-barganing. U.S. Attorney Charles F. C. Ruff, for one, has expressed additional concern that mandatory minimum sentences leave no discretion when first offenders are involved. The city's chief legal officer, D.C. Corporation Counsel Judith W. Rogers, agrees, adding that it also would further burden over-crowded prisons.
Council members who disagree include John Ray and Betty Ann Kane. Mr. Ray argues that the current system is unfair because it treats different classes of people differently; Mrs. Kane says the community wants tougher action. And there is talk of taking the issue to the voters -- through a ballot initiative petition -- if the council doesn't do something.
There certainly is something to be said for more equitable, sure-fire punishment for those convicted of gun-related crimes -- even though the concerns expressed by Mr. Ruff and Mrs. Rogers are valid. If mandatory sentences are longer than, say, two years, courts and/or juries may well refuse to convict as charged. And any attempt at mandatory sentences would probably best be limited to repeat offenders.
Before enacting anything rash -- and that includes whipping up some quick draft for voter approval this fall -- the council should take a long, hard look at experiences elsewhere. Perhaps even the gun lobby, which points to tougher sentencing as a substitute for rather than a complement to other controls, might provide some insight. But the issue is too important to be subjected to a quick fix.