States' Top Cops Split on Adding More Gun Laws ; but More Attorneys General Call for 'Common Sense' Approach

By Liz Marlantes, writer of The Christian Science Monitor | The Christian Science Monitor, April 13, 2000 | Go to article overview
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States' Top Cops Split on Adding More Gun Laws ; but More Attorneys General Call for 'Common Sense' Approach


Liz Marlantes, writer of The Christian Science Monitor, The Christian Science Monitor


The great divide in Washington over what to do about gun violence has spread to the states, where the top law officers are split sharply over which is the greater need: more gun-control measures, or better enforcement of existing laws.

An informal Monitor survey of more than a dozen state attorneys general shows the issue breaks along party and geographical lines.

But it also reveals a rising interest in new, "common sense" gun- control legislation - even among some attorneys general from conservative, pro-gun states. While the states' gun laws still vary widely, a few ideas, such as requiring background checks for gun buyers at gun shows, are gaining credence among this group of top prosecutors.

"We have to get into a common-sense mode," says Jim Doyle, Wisconsin attorney general, a Democrat. "The country's ready. Whether legislative bodies are ready is another matter."

The politically explosive nature of the debate does not elude the AGs, who are usually careful to reflect the attitudes and gun values of their respective states. Minnesota's attorney general, for example, shares his office with a bear, stuffed and mounted on the wall. But Mike Hatch, a Democrat, is quick to say he didn't shoot it: "I wrestled mine," he jokes.

In general, AGs who serve in states in the Northeast and along the Pacific Ocean are pushing to add new gun-control laws to the books. Those in the South and the mountain West are focusing more on enforcement.

"The pattern is ... different depending on the region," says Larry Sabato, a professor of government at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville. "Proposals are being changed or defeated on the nature of the state."

A report released today, by the New York-based Open Society Institute, shows wide discrepancies between the states when it comes to gun laws. Massachusetts, the report shows, has the strongest gun- control laws. Maine has no laws. The report uses 30 criteria - such as background checks, waiting periods, and child-safety laws - to rank the states. Regional patterns emerged as well, with Southern and Western states ranking lower on average.

The Monitor found that attitudes of state attorneys general are equally divided. Massachusetts Attorney General Tom Reilly (D) has recently imposed mandatory safety regulations - including trigger locks - on all guns, and banned "Saturday night specials." On the other end of the spectrum, Alabama Attorney General Bill Pryor (R) is trying to repeal one of the few gun-control laws the state has - a waiting period for handgun purchases.

Yet in several states, attorneys general are pushing for some additional measures.

"Most law-abiding citizens should be able to possess guns," says Wisconsin's Mr. Doyle. But, he adds, "the gun lobby has been effective in stopping us from reaching a basic, middle-of-the-road position."

One such piece of legislation, in Doyle's eyes, is a measure to end the "gun-show loophole," which allows people to buy handguns at gun shows without being submitted to background checks.

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