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Univ. of San Diego School of Law

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Friday, October 31, 2008

Lost-gun ordinances usually fire blanks

Lose a gun in Cleveland and fail to report it to police and you could face a $250 fine and 30 days in jail. But in the 12 years that ordinance has been on Cleveland's books, only two people have been taken to court for failing to report a lost or stolen gun.

That experience, and those of other cities, suggests that Pittsburgh's proposed ordinance on reporting lost or stolen guns and others cropping up all over the state and nation warrant neither the fear they are engendering in foes, nor the hope they inspire in advocates.

The target for anti-violence advocates is the so-called straw purchaser -- someone with no criminal record who can therefore pass a background check and buy a gun, but then sell it or let it fall into the hands of someone who uses it for crime. When police trace that gun back to the original purchaser, that person often gets off the hook by claiming it was stolen or lost.

"Without a lost-and-stolen gun provision, [investigators] are kind of powerless when they trace the gun back to someone who says it was lost or stolen," said Jana Finder, Western Pennsylvania coordinator of Ceasefire PA, which is pushing the measures. She said they're "targeting the people who [sell guns to criminals] regularly."

Neither Ceasefire PA nor other anti-violence or gun control groups contacted could name a city that has aggressively enforced a lost or stolen gun reporting law.

"It doesn't work anywhere it has been tried," said Rachel Parsons, a Washington, D.C.-based spokeswoman for the National Rifle Association. The group objects to the reporting laws because, she said, those whose guns were stolen "were already victimized, but we are going to criminalize [them] anyway."

Still, the NRA could not point to anyone who was unfairly victimized by existing lost or stolen gun reporting laws.

Cleveland certainly hasn't gone overboard.

"We've had two documented instances in which people have been brought before the court for violating the ordinance," said Martin L. Flask, Cleveland's public safety director. One was in 1996, the other five years later. In four other cases, police charged someone with failing to report, but prosecutors dropped it. [Mark Godsey]

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