Hamilton County Sheriff Jim Hammond and his Bradley County colleague, Sheriff Jim Ruth, seemed proud Monday to publicly declare that they oppose stricter gun control laws. But their logic and constancy dissolved after that. They leave constituents to guess how the nation should move to shut down the now-legal gun sewer that -- in the absence of background checks on 40 percent of gun sales -- helps arm criminals and fuels illegal gun-running from low-regulation states to strict-control states.
Speaking on Monday as President Obama issued a national appeal in Minnesota to tighten gun-control rules, Hammond said he supports better background checks, but not checks that include mental health reports, which are considered crucial to braking gun-massacres. He also declined to say whether he supports a revived ban on semi-automatic assault rifles. He mainly observed, without an apparent sense of his inherent contradictions, that law-abiding citizens didn't need more gun laws; that society just needed to focus on keeping guns out of the hands of criminals.
Ruth said bans on (assault) weapons do not work. Since the nation has never had a leak-proof ban, we wonder how he knows. He parted ways with Hammond on mental health background checks, however. He said law enforcement agencies should be able to access databases to identify mental health records of would-be gun purchases.
Their confusing remarks clearly lack much standing among their peers. As of Monday, they were the only two Tennessee sheriffs, among the paltry national total of 267 sheriffs, to have signed on to the grandstanding Texas-based Constitutional Sheriffs and Peace Officers Association website, which is apparently devoted to resisting sensible gun-control reforms. But their views illustrate clearly why their muddling obfuscation allows criminals to continue to get guns.
While every state requires compliance with federal background checks for gun purchases from licensed dealers, the background check falls apart after that as a cohesive standard. Most states otherwise allow gun sales without background checks between private sellers and purchasers. And many sellers and buyers connect for such sales at wide-open public gun shows, which typically only require background checks to be run by licensed dealers. Hence the illegal gun sewer.
Many purchasers, diligent investigative studies have found, end up illegally selling their guns out of their trunks in cities with strict legal purchase rules. Such voluminous black market sales route guns from southern states -- Tennessee, Georgia and South Carolina chief among them -- to criminals in New York City and Chicago, for example. That's one reason why New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg formed the Mayors Against Illegal Guns coalition, which has drawn support from some 800 mayors, including Chattanooga Mayor Ron Littlefield.
Littlefield is well aware that the Colorado felon fugitive who shot and killed Chattanooga Police Sgt. Tim Chapin last April had, just days earlier, traded three stolen pistols to a private illegal dealer for an M-4 assault rifle at the R.K. Gun Show in Chattanooga without having to go through a background check. Such a check might have prevented the sale and alerted police to the fugitive's whereabouts.
It's not enough, of course, to tighten the background check and to apply it broadly to gun shows, Internet and all other personal gun sales. It needs to be broadened to mandatory mental health background checks, because less than a third of states consistently contribute to the voluntary mental health reports. The background check data also should be permanently stored -- not discarded within hours, as it is now due to NRA lobbying -- and the data, and guns sales details, should be made available to all law enforcement agencies.
It's already apparent that far too many Democrats, as well as Republicans, are unwilling to put much political capital behind a renewed ban on assault weapons, large capacity magazines and armor-piercing ammunition -- the death dealers in the majority of gun massacres of innocents. If they had stronger spines for justice and sensible gun control, they would step up. But broad, consistent reform of mandatory background checks should be easy to support. They would do no disservice to law abiding citizens. And over time, they would close the gun sewer to criminals and the mentally deranged.