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A necessary inconvenience

December 02, 1998

The first day of an instant-check system for would-be gun buyers went better in Pennsylvania than it did in Maryland, apparently because police there set up their own system and communicated well with dealers. Maryland could take a lesson or two from its neighbor to the north.

To cope with the law, which took effect Monday, Pennsylvania officials decided to become one of the 27 states that will handle all or part of the checking process. Officials there added 40 people to the 50-member staff already involved in gun registration and briefed dealers in advance. As a result, The Associated Press reported, many who bought rifles for the buck season which runs through Dec. 13 did so in advance.

Things went less smoothly in Maryland, where officials tapped into an FBI system which experienced a computer crash Monday that lasted for an hour-and-a-half. Dealers also reported delays of half-an-hour to two hours before they could log onto the system.

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Nor were some dealers who'd already cleared buyers through the Maryland State Police sure about whether would-be gun owners had to be certified again by the FBI. No, they don't.

In time, the feds will probably get the glitches worked out of their system, but in retrospect, it seems that Pennsylvania's do-it-yourself approach made more sense.

In the meantime, the National Rifle Association says it will sue over the system, calling it an "illegal national registration of gun owners."

For those who feel that way. it might be good to remember the act that prompted the law. On March 30, 1981, an unbalanced young man named John Hinckley tried to impress movie star Jodie Foster by shooting President Ronald Reagan with a .22-calibre pistol purchased in a state that didn't require a background check.

Had a check been required, authorities would have known that in 1980, Hinckley was arrested trying to board a plane with three guns and 50 rounds of ammunition. Instant-check may not be perfect, but if it deters just one would-be presidential assassin, it's worth it.

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