Guns: How Many More Must Die Before Something Is Done?

Charles P. MacDonald is a convicted felon. He received a dishonorable discharge from the military. He admits to a history of psychological and emotional problems. MacDonald was legally ineligible to vote. But he was eligible to sell firearms.

For two years, beginning in 1989, he was a federally licensed firearms dealer who sold more than 100 guns from a Skid Row hotel--mostly cheap handguns but semiautomatic assault rifles too. At least a dozen of these weapons, authorities say, were later used in crimes ranging from armed robbery to attempted murder.

That an individual with such a troubled background had easy access to so much firepower illustrates the glaring--and tragic--failings of the licensing system for firearms dealers. It also underscores the failure of both the state and the federal government to adequately enforce these regulations--a failure that unquestionably has contributed to an explosion in the number of weapons available to street criminals.

For many of his customers, one of the attractions of buying a gun from MacDonald was that there would be no questions, no paperwork, no state-mandated 15-day waiting period.

According to The Times' David Freed, writing in a five-part series on the proliferation of guns in Los Angeles County, MacDonald was only one of many licensed dealers conducting "business from homes, hotel rooms, private offices and even government buildings" in violation of federal, state and local laws.

Some of L.A. County's 3,000 dealers are in "business" not for profit but to use their federal licenses to buy guns for themselves without observing the waiting period.

How has all this happened?

A critical shortage of federal authorities is at the root of the problem. Federal authorities often grant licenses to individuals based on incomplete or outdated criminal records. That failure is compounded by the inability of the beleaguered Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms (ATF) to conduct on-site inspections of proposed dealerships or face-to-face interviews with prospective dealers.

The ATF has only about a dozen compliance inspectors to cover 4,000 dealers spread over Los Angeles, Ventura and Santa Barbara counties. Those inspectors also have other duties such as collecting tobacco taxes and monitoring the alcohol content of beverages. This means, in effect, that once licensed, a dealer can go for years without being inspected; indeed, some longtime license holders say they never have been visited by an ATF official. That is deplorable.

Like federal officials, the state and local authorities don't seem to have a handle on the situation. Most dealers operating in Los Angeles County are not licensed by the State Board of Equalization and thus escape paying sales taxes and state licensing fees. Localities too are losing out on tax revenue and licensing fees. Of the more than 1,100 federally licensed gun dealers who do business within the city of Los Angeles, only 130 bothered to register, be fingerprinted and pay for a $300 permit from the city's Police Commission. Gun dealers operating within city limits are also supposed to have security systems and to keep their firearms in locked vaults. These rules are ignored by many who operate out of houses, apartments and offices.

Meanwhile, the community is drowning in a rising tide of violence, fed increasingly by cheap, small-caliber handguns, many of which are manufactured in and around Los Angeles.

L.A. County hospitals treated more than 8,000 people for gunshot wounds last year--more than 10 times the number of Americans wounded in the Persian Gulf War. Annual gun deaths in Los Angeles have more than doubled since 1970, from 464 to 1,154 last year--more than the number killed in traffic accidents. A quarter of those deaths were youngsters under 19. Officials estimate that it cost $54 million to treat firearm injuries in L.A County. Four-fifths of that amount was paid for by the taxpayers.

The fear generated by these crimes, according to the Times Poll, has "altered the attitudes and lifestyles of a significant share of the region's population."

And no wonder. In Los Angeles County, one in six households was victimized by gun-related crime in the last two years. In Southern California, one in eight households were affected.

Rebuilding Los Angeles physically as well as psychically means restoring a sense of civil order. Central to that process is monitoring the sale of weapons and their distribution.

The right to license carries the right to regulate and control. That means the federal government must be willing to do more than collect fees. The government must be willing to tighten the licensing system: more enforcement, more thorough checks, more--and more frequent--on site inspections.

However, even the tightest possible inspection and registration system and the imposition of strict, nationwide waiting periods would not end the deadly wave of gun-related violence. One of the best hopes lies in curbing the seemingly endless supply of weapons: assault rifles and handguns, domestic and foreign. Without such curbs, the violence--and the cycle of arming, killing and then more arming in the face of fear--will continue.

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