Like the controversial new Brady law, the Clinton administration's proposal for a stiff increase in license fees for firearms dealers would only nibble around the edges of America's gun control problem.
But if a series of small bites is what's needed to disarm teenage gangs and limit gun ownership to mature, stable, responsible citizens, so be it. Meanwhile, consider a few of the dimensions of the problem.Since 1975, the number of federally licensed dealers in the $24 billion-a-year firearms industry has grown from 175,000 to 284,000. As one result, there are now more gun dealers in this country than there are gas station operators. As another result, there are 211 million firearms in the hands of Americans - nearly one for every man, woman and child.
With firearms so readily available, no wonder that one in three Americans has a friend or relative who has been shot.
Why has the number of gun dealers grown so rapidly? One reason is that since 1968 the fee for getting a three-year federal license has come to only $10 a year. This fee is only a fraction of the amount commonly charged for liquor licenses or for franchises to sell merchandise a lot less dangerous than either guns or booze.
The low fee explains why only about 20 percent of the federally licensed gun dealers are genuinely engaged in firearms trade as a business. The rest, who operate mostly from their own homes, get licenses so they can buy guns for their own use at wholesale prices. When such hobbyists sell guns, they don't always adhere to regulations on such sales.
Under the new Brady law, the fee for a three-year license will go from $30 to $200. But the higher figure is still not enough to enable the Treasury Department to check on some 284,000 applicants with only 240 inspectors.
Hence this week's proposal by President Clinton and Treasury Secretary Lloyd Bentsen to hike the licensing fee to $600 a year.
The administration also proposes to accompany the higher fee with the expansion of a pilot program that uses federal and local officials to more carefully screen applicants for gun dealer licenses. In New York the program has resulted in the withdrawal or denial of 90 percent of the applications.
Though the stiffer fee and more rigorous screening may put many marginal firearms dealers out of business and reduce gun purchases somewhat, some buyers will merely go to the 57,000 or so dealers able to pay the higher fee while other buyers will switch to the black market.
Tough new laws, then, though marginally helpful, are still no substitute for a change in the social climate. But the social climate can't be expected to change much until some Americans sicken of their own excesses or Hollywood stops producing the kind of films and TV shows that tend to legitimize and even glamorize violence.