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Halfway on Guns

President Bush's announcement this week of additional funds to prosecute criminals who use guns is welcome. Tougher prosecution can cut down on crimes committed with guns, as the experience of states and cities has shown.

The model for this kind of program is Project Exile, which began in Virginia. The strategy is to bolster gun-law prosecutions by directing cases to federal court, where the bail-bond rules and sentences are stricter. Eventually, Virginia passed its own stronger rules, bringing much of the action back into state courts. Richmond, Virginia's capital, has seen a significant drop in gun homicides since the program started in 1997; Baltimore, with a similar program, saw a 14 percent drop last year.

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Mr. Bush proposes to appoint 113 new federal prosecutors who will concentrate on gun infractions. He also wants to devote $44 million to improve record-keeping, so that convicted criminals won't be allowed to purchase guns, and $19 million for programs to keep guns away from juveniles.

Well and good. But there are some other parts to this picture.

The federal agencies that oversee the country's huge commerce in guns also need beefing up. The number of federal agents checking on gun dealers is inadequate. Also on the regulatory front, the laws themselves are inadequate. Better means to trace gun sales, and to check the background of gun buyers (particularly at gun shows) are needed.

On that front, this week also saw Sens. Joe Lieberman (D) of Connecticut and John McCain (R) of Arizona propose new legislation to require background checks at gun shows.

If the president wants more than half a gun policy, he should pay attention to the whole picture.

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor