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C. Fraser Smith: Why gun-control advocates keep trying

The murder of state Sen. Clementa Pinckney in Charleston haunts us.

And the five Marines in Chattanooga.

The slaughter of innocents in Newtown.

The movie theater massacre in Denver.

The list gets longer and longer.

The pace and predictability inures us. We are shocked, of course. But we put it all out of our minds.

What can we do? The NRA will block whatever anyone suggests as a possible solution. We’ve seen that over and over as well.

Meanwhile, the number of guns in cities like Baltimore and Charlestown and Chattanooga grows.

And yet.

The search and the organizing and lobbying and researching – the search for an answer continues. Why? Why do the control advocates keep trying?

“We have reason to keep trying,” says Vincent Demarco, a long time gun-control proponent. “There’s a solution,” he says.

And Daniel Webster, the Johns Hopkins School of Public Health researcher, agrees.

They are not wooly headed dreamers. They know a solution, if there is one, needs trial and error. But we must start.

But they think a gun licensing law such as the one passed 2013 in Maryland has potential, particularly if other states see the data and join us..

Had there been such a law in South Carolina, the Rev. Pinckney and the eight parishioners who perished with him might be alive today, Webster thinks.

The young man who killed them might not have been able to get a gun so easily. If the licensing law there had a 30-day review period (instead of only 3 days), the shooter’s drug use history probably would have been enough deny him a license.

And even if he had been able to steal a weapon or buy one illegally, narrowing  the legal route to gun ownership would have made it more difficult generally to get a gun.

The general effect of that would have saved lives – Pinckney’s included.

“Nothing will be perfect,” Webster says, “but we can’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good.”

The Maryland law and others like it, Demarco says, could bring on a “sea change” – if measures like it are adopted by other states.

A sea change because, polling shows, the killing does haunt us. People want it to stop. Knowing that perhaps, the NRA chose not to put the issue before the Maryland voters.

Here, after the Firearm Safety Act passed in the spring of 2013, the gun lobby could have taken the issue to referendum but chose not to, fearing they might lose. They know people want an end to the carnage.

Other states must follow Maryland’s lead, Demarco says.

Both men cite New Jersey for leadership in gun licensing and finger printing. In New Jersey, 80 percent of guns traced to crime come from other states, they say.

Missouri is another state that makes the case for licensing. Since it repealed a licensing requirement, homicide by firearms has gone up 25 percent.

Webster says the licensing laws are important because they deter the somewhat instant or temper-driven use of guns. This kind of fatal shooting is far more common than the dramatic killings we can recite by name and number and city. People can cool off during the licensing process.

As for his current view on the prospects for control, Webster says it depends on the question.

Control prospects on the national level, he says, are near zero.

“Congress can’t get anything done on any issue,” he says.

The states are a different matter. In Washington state recently, he said, a background check law passed by a 2-to-1 margin even as Republicans were winning big.

Polling shows, he said, that Americans want sensible gun laws. That desire is across the board. Political party affiliation, gun owners as well as non-gun owners.

Things can change. Fear of crack-driven violence controlled the atmosphere in the 1980s when Webster started working on the issue. Some of the harsh sentencing that resulted is now under careful review and repeal – even in law-and-order states. The cost, if not the injustice of sentencing practices, is bringing reform.

“What mainly gives me hope,” Webster says, “is the widespread support for common sense control measures.”

A few brave political figures have stepped up to do just that. More are needed.

It’s a big story that gets too little attention.

“The media,” Webster says, “isn’t nearly as interested in change as it is in drama.”

C. Fraser Smith is senior news analyst at WYPR. His column appears Fridays in The Daily Record. His email address is fsmith@wypr.org.